The eye blinks. It’s just the one eye, located on the right side of his body, but it takes in so much of the world around him, and thanks to the power of stop-motion animation, it blinks. The mouth isn’t more than a line that’s been digitally scribbled onto the lower part of his face, yet what comes out of that mouth, the small nuggets of wisdom delivered in a raspy squeak, can feel profound. There’s not much to him, really, except for a head (of sorts) and a pair of sneakers. That’s all he really needs to shuffle around, though. His name is Marcel. He’s a shell. With shoes on. And the one-inch philosopher with deep thoughts and some sweet kicks has a way of making you either roll your eyes (plural) or feel as if your heart is breaking.
When comedian Jenny Slate and her then-husband, director Dean Fleischer-Camp, first started making the short adventures of a minuscule shell as a creative pastime, the expectations were as low as their hero’s stature. He’d interact with household items, detail his life as a small thing in a giant world (“Guess what I use as a beanbag chair? A raisin. … I hang-glide on a Dorito.”), take his pet piece of lint for a walk and express childlike wonder about life, the universe, and everything to an unseen person offscreen. The couple dropped these four-minute movies on YouTube and, several gajillion views later, Marcel became a viral sensation. It was the early 2010s, so, y’know — a very different time, people.
It took Slate and Fleischer-Camp seven years to create a feature-length movie for their adorable lil’ shell, and it helps to remember what’s happened to the world since they first started rolling their cameras for what would be Marcel’s big(ger)-screen debut. Not that any of us have forgotten; we’re still combing through the wreckage, still living with so much of it on a daily basis. But the context of when this movie was being made bleeds into what you’re seeing up there, and how you’re reacting to it, in significant ways. Marcel remains only an inch tall and voiced by Slate, continuing to use things like electric mixers and spilled honey and tennis balls in ingenious ways (in terms of his primitive engineering via everyday objects, the Swiss Family Robinson could take notes). As with the shorts, the tweeness factor is high, though mileage may vary on whether you add “unbearably” as a descriptive there. Yet the extreme sense of melancholy and isolation, the ache of loneliness that pulses at the center of this labor of love, adds a whole new layer to the long-form chapter of the duo’s Marcel project. Bittersweet suits their hero to a tee.
Marcel used to be part of a collective of shells that lived in a house owned by a young couple. Then one night, in the middle of a bad argument, the gentleman partner stormed out with most of his stuff. That included most of Marcel’s family members, loved ones, and peers, who were hiding in the “emergency shelter” space commonly known as a sock drawer. The only shells left are Marcel and his elderly grandmother, Nanna Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini, reminding you exactly why she’s an international treasure). And the dwelling is now an Airbnb rental, currently occupied by a filmmaker (Fleischer-Camp). He decides to make a documentary on Marcel and his musings, which he puts on YouTube and — surprise! — they become incredibly popular. Marcel wants to use this newfound fame to mobilize search parties for his missing relatives; unfortunately, everyone just wants to take selfies in front of his house. As for Nanna Connie, she seems to be forgetting things a lot and injuring herself more than usual. Marcel is worried. The concern is legit.
The metacommentary about celebrity, from its fickle nature to its unforeseen downsides, is designed to be tame and a means to an end, which doesn’t make it feel like any less of a distraction from what Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is really about. You don’t need Lesley Stahl — a shared obsession over 60 Minutes is a recurring motif — to tell you this is a story about the importance of community, and friendship, and how we need others around us in order to thrive, or even survive. You don’t even need a mockumentary format, though Flesicher-Camp is clearly having fun playing around with rack focuses and shaky cameras to give this stop-motion-animated character study a few vérité winks and nudges.
All you really need is Slate’s voice, which has a way of lacing Marcel’s naivete with the gentlest irony to keep things from getting cloying to the point of intolerance. More importantly, you have to be left feeling the significance of a sense of connection, not just between Marcel and his ailing grandmother but between individuals (be they human or the hard protective casing of a mollusk) and the larger world they may be cut off from, by circumstance or otherwise. And this is where the emotional resonance of this quietly extraordinary movie lies. In fact, it has a keen sense of demonstrating why the comfort of others — of being part of something larger than yourself — isn’t a luxury but a necessity. You will want to have tissues nearby for its final third, for both the reasons you’d think and for several unexpected wallops that sneak up on you. For all of the painstaking work that went into making this intricate animated feature feel not just handmade but heartfelt, Marcel is a wisp of a wistful film, whether it’s being existentially deep or essentially silly. Most of all, it just feels like a salve.