Are you ready for a shell with a googly eye to make you cry? I wasn’t.
Sure, I remember the hoopla that arose in 2010 (yes, 12 years ago), when Marcel the Shell with Shoes On became a YouTube sensation and a twee meme. But frankly, I never got the appeal of the little critter, who mumbled about being small and the big world he didn’t understand. All these years later though, Marcel is back with a feature film and a mindful, willfully silly exploration of loss that had even this hard-shelled critic cracking up and breaking down.
Like the YouTube shorts, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On centers on conversations between the titular mollusk and a curious documentarian. In the movie, these exchanges blossom into a quest to search for Marcel’s long-lost family, who’d been scattered to the winds through a cruel twist of fate. Fascinated but also driven to help, the documentarian uploads videos of Marcel online, hoping internet attention will yield search results. Along the way, many adorable shenanigans occur, involving pesky dogs, a rolling tennis ball, his beloved grandma Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), and 60 Minutes‘ television journalist Lesley Stahl. Yet amid these bursts of playful fun, there are tender tangles of loss.
There’s the loss of Marcel’s family, but other avenues of grief surface. His grandmother is growing frail and Marcel’s tiny voice trembles as he tries to shield them both from the inevitable. But beyond this, there’s a grief that plays with the miracle of this movie’s creation. To explain that, let’s take a step back.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On contains a meta level of loss.
Originally, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On was a joint project between comedian Jenny Slate and her future husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp. He was the inquisitive “documentarian,” and she was the plucky shell. Since then, Slate and Fleischer-Camp have divorced. She had a very public romance with Chris Evans, then went on to marry someone else in 2021. (12 years is a long time.) For Fleischer-Camp’s part, his private life has been less public. Nonetheless, life undeniably moves on. And yet, here he is, returning not only to this collaboration but also to the role of a documentarian. And in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Dean the documentarian meets Marcel because he’s going through a break-up, necessitating the rental of this shell-inhabited Airbnb. It’s hard not to see it as a nod to he and Slate’s own history.
So, in a sense, both Marcel and documentarian Dean are grappling with how loss can radically change their respective worlds. In that, they found each other and a friendship that inspired both to open up and grow. Because no matter how much we lose, no matter how hard it hits, no matter how much it hurts, the sun will rise, the moon will set, and life will go on whether we like it or not.
It’s a gentle promise that life can be hard and ridiculous, but isn’t there something wondrous in that?
“A space in my heart gets bigger and louder every day,” Marcel says to explain the gnawing grief of being wretched from his loved ones. But as he says this, Dean is at his side. And while the image is pleasantly ridiculous, a sneakered shell next to a towering hipster intellectual, it’s heartwarming. It’s a gentle promise that life can be hard and ridiculous, but isn’t there something wondrous in that?
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On reflects on fame and internet fandom.
In this journey, Fleischer-Camp, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Elisabeth Holm and Nick Paley, pokes at internet fame’s double-edged sword. Fans who love Marcel become at first a pleasure, then a pain as their fandom becomes territorial, disrupting his quiet life. “It’s an audience,” Marcel scolds a cajoling Dean, “not a community.” This wariness does not dip into bitterness over Marcel’s real-world origins. But it is a smarting contrast to so much of the movie’s sweetness, which urges audiences to consider what lies beneath such a sharp remark.
Already online, there’s been some backlash against the movie’s perceived earnestness, assumed to be sickening and patronizing to its adult audience. First off, if a grown-up movie wants to be silly and sweet unrelentingly, that’s how you get Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, which is superb cinema. Secondly, despite what its detractors have assumed (sight unseen, as far as I can tell), Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is not an incessantly nice movie meant to swaddle adults in its nostalgia and cuteness. Slate and Fleischer-Camp might lure us in with the familiar hook of a cuddly mollusk who muses about lint balls and coos about a “sad type of idiot.” But beyond that familiarity, they delve into troubling waters of what growing up and growing old brings on. Troubles we can’t predict. Losses we can’t control. Grief we can’t escape, even if you happen to be a plucky shell with shoes on.
Despite what its detractors have assumed…’Marcel’ is not an incessantly nice movie meant to swaddle adults in its nostalgia and cuteness.
In the end, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is more than the sum of its quirks. Sure, A24 and the feature film upgrade mean more articulated animation and some celebrity cameos. But beneath the surface of the glossy glow-up, Marcel has matured. Fleischer-Camp and Slate have joined forces to share a layered story that urges us to laugh, and cry, and maybe find the inspiration not to take life so seriously. Take splendor in the sweet, the silly, and even the sad, and you’ll relish Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On opens in limited release June 22; expands nationwide July 15.