Marcel is a shell with neat little shoes on, and he’s back to conquer the big screen after first dominating the online video space over ten years ago. First introduced to the world in a trio of short films uploaded to director Dean Fleischer Camp’s YouTube channel, Marcel’s unique voice (both in terms of sound and words) propelled him to internet stardom. Camp and comedian co-creator Jenny Slate bring back their titular icon in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a feature film from A24 about genuine connection, change, and holding onto hope during trying times. Imaginative and heartwarming, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a delightful time at the theater.
While many will be overjoyed to recognize Marcel from his YouTube virality, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On does more to further define his shorts than make them required viewing. The film, presented as a documentary created by the in-universe Dean Fleischer Camp, uses the filmmaker’s particular lens to follow the little guy and his shell grandmother Nana Connie who happen to live in the AirBnB that Camp has rented during his own messy break-up. The documentarian soon learns that Marcel and Connie are the last remnants of a once-thriving community that was torn apart – an incident that left Marcel separated from his parents and family. Through this, Camp’s renowned shorts are recontextualized into but one piece of the gang’s efforts to restore lost connections and make new ones. Filming every step of the way, Camp teams up with Marcel to find his long-lost shell community while caring for an aging Nana Connie.
At the head of his feature debut, Camp directs a screenplay penned by him and Slate with Nick Paley. Referencing many of the jokes that endeared global audiences to Marcel in 2010 while also adding many new ones, the film weaves its way through the world of an ambiguously young, anthropomorphized shell with surprising realism and heft. It’s hard to describe Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, its poignancy falling somewhere between melancholy and nostalgia, just down the block from bittersweet. In every sense of the word, it feels alive. There’s a tangible sense of lived experience that fills the singular wide eye of its protagonist, brought to life further by little quips underlined by pangs of emotion that transcend what one would think possible from a puppet barely longer than an inch across.
This sense of smallness is a considerable theme of the film, driving the little shell on a journey to define his own place. Marcel The Shell with Shoes On places its oddball main character in a familiar predicament, afraid to “lose everything in the hope of something.” Marcel has resigned himself to a life of relative safety due to his fear of losing his grandmother after his parents’ disappearance. It’s this conflicting desire to connect with others and the fear of further loss that ups the stakes of his journey to locate his lost relatives with the documentarian. In finally pushing the boundaries of the house in which he has lived for his whole life, he must grapple with the vastness of the outside world and even the things he had once come to accept as home. It’s only by doing so that he can truly be himself and find comfort.
An impressive feat in its own right, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On manages to capture the tone and feel of its short film predecessors with the budget of a feature. Much of this is thanks to Camp and Slate’s close relationship with their shoe-wearing creation, but that affection and care are preserved and amplified through an impressive liveliness of direction. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On combines live-action and stop-motion photography to bring its quirky characters to life with the aesthetic of an amateur documentary, handheld shaky-cam and all. Seamless animation and compositing fill A24’s very first stop-motion feature, and are smoothed over further by creative moments of framing that add to the spontaneity of documentary work.
Although there’s an unmistakable amount of effort and care poured into every frame, there’s not a moment of artifice to be found in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Even the expected hiccups in light flicker or prop bumping (which are inherent to even the most refined stop-motion productions) feel like part of the film’s charm, imbuing it with further feelings of nostalgia and wholesome fondness. But that’s not to say the illusion is entirely lost, either; there are vast stretches of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On that are nothing if not magical; a talking shell speaking to the actual Lesley Stahl live on 60 Minutes is a sight to behold, and one would be damned if they didn’t buy every minute of it.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is only a brisk 90 minutes, though its journey is palpable. A testament to the masterful handling of emotion in its script and direction, the film never feels too short or long, perfectly weighing out each moment. By the end of the journey, Marcel feels like a real, living little shell guy, his world of dust-skating and tennis ball go-karts all but at one’s fingertips.