Marcel appeared out of thin air. “My name is Marshell — oh no, that’s not the first time I’ve done that,” he said in his high-pitched, slightly nasal voice, in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2010. Undeterred by his hiccup, he began again: “My name is Marcel and I’m partially a shell, as you can see from my body.” These wholesome opening lines came to define the essence of Marcel the Shell, the brainchild of comedian Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp, and what he offered a small corner of the internet.
This beady-eyed mollusk was witty, confident and curious. “Have you ever eaten a raspberry, and what was that like?” he once asked. I still think about this question and how I, if asked earnestly, would answer. Marcel possessed a distinctly uncorny optimism founded on admirable self-love. Marcel did not want to sell you a product or a dream; he just wanted to tell you about what he liked and share his world.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
A total delight.
Now, roughly 11 years later, Marcel is back. Premiering at the Telluride Film Festival, Marcel the Shell With the Shoes On is a delightful feature-length adaptation of the beloved original shorts. Many films claim to be an antidote to this moment in history, but Marcel’s flick might be the first one I’ve seen in the past two years that actually fits that bill. Starring Jenny Slate, Dean Fleischer-Camp and Isabella Rossellini, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is a sweet, uncomplicated film whose message about self-compassion and community feels especially prescient.
The film opens with an entrance fit for its star. A camera settles on a sun-soaked hallway, focusing specifically on the disordered shoe rack hugging the wall. Suddenly a tennis ball, materializing seemingly out of thin air, rolls down the stairs. Marcel emerges from what he calls his rover and launches into an introductory monologue that will be familiar to established fans. Not all his lines are drawn from the shorts, though, and new ones like “I want to have a good life and to stay alive, and not just survive but have a good life” show that Marcel’s got a lot more to teach us.
We meet Marcel the Shell (voiced impeccably by Slate) because Dean (Fleischer-Camp), a struggling filmmaker, has just moved into the sprawling Airbnb that Marcel lives in with his grandmother Connie (Rossellini) and their dog. Upon discovering the tiny mollusk duo, Dean decides to make a documentary film about Marcel. This simple premise invites Marcel to share with abandon, and the film’s early moments indulge in the minute details of his world.
Marcel sleeps on a piece of bread, coats the bottom of his shoes with honey so he can climb up walls, and uses a tennis ball as a car. Oh, and his dog, Alan, is a piece of lint tied to a strand of hair. His grandmother’s garden, housed in an abandoned wheelbarrow, is a world unto itself. During the tour, Connie explains the importance of the surrounding wildlife, from the honeybee who’s drunk from nectar to the slimy earthworms weaving themselves in and out of the garden soil. It’s impossible not to see the world differently after meeting Marcel, whose entire life is built off improvisation. Combining stop-motion animation with live-action footage is a painstaking process, and one that allows Fleischer-Camp to beautifully integrate Marcel’s miniature world into ours.
The film’s most endearing qualities, however, stem from its script, or lack thereof. Instead of using a traditional screenplay, Fleischer-Camp, Slater and their co-writer, Nick Paley, depended on guided improv, which they spent hours recording, according to press notes. The result of that work is evident. The plot of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On moves at a natural pace, and the title character’s conversations with Dean and with his grandmother possess an unforced intimacy, avoiding the usual stiffness of movies trying to teach Important Lessons. Slater has always been perfect as Marcel, and her comedic timing and rapport with Fleischer-Camp and Rossellini only add to the film’s charming mood.
As Dean spends more time with Marcel, their conversations deepen. Soon, Marcel feels comfortable enough to share how he and Connie were — without warning — separated from their entire community. The memories still haunt Marcel who, since then, has been afraid of too much change. Fleischer-Camp, Slate and Paley do not waste the extra time a feature-length film gives Marcel. At times the plot — Marcel embarks on a journey to find his family with the help of stranger — feels a bit hackneyed, but that can be forgiven for the depth it eventually adds to the mollusk’s personality.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is a film with much to offer when it comes to lessons and laughs. It even handles its primary themes about loss, grief and community with humor and grace, an approach that, these days, seems especially hard to find.