Marcel the Shell isn’t a perfect film, but in expanding a 2010 Internet gimmick to humorous and heartfelt feature length, it proves surprisingly refined, and a welcome panacea in these pandemic times.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On began as an acclaimed 2010 short film, winning prizes at AFI Fest 2010 and the 2011 New York International Children’s Film Festival. The short clocks in at just over three minutes and establishes many of the elements — Marcel’s nasally baby voice (courtesy of Jenny Slate), the rapid-fire, subtly absurdist deadpan humor, the hyperreal blend of stop-motion animation and live-action environments — that director Dean Fleischer-Camp would later expand in this, his feature-length debut. Marcel is made for children and grown-ups alike, but not in the corporately manufactured, studio-product sense of a Pixar tentpole. It possesses a surfeit of soul and wit, enough whimsy to delight young imaginations, and a poignant warmth that adults can appreciate.
Dean (Fleischer-Camp) is a post-break-up documentary filmmaker who discovers the one-inch-tall talking shell Marcel and Marcel’s grandmother, Nanna Connie (Isabella Rossellini) in the Airbnb he moves into. Immediately captivated, Dean starts documenting Marcel’s household routines and the two form a loose friendship. When Dean uploads his first video featuring Marcel (an in-universe analog to the real-life 2010 short), Marcel quickly becomes a viral superstar. The little shell bemoans the fact he can’t share the moment with the rest of his large family, who disappeared after the house’s previous human occupants split up. He then begins a quest to reunite with them.
Unsurprisingly, Marcel the Shell is the star of the show. The tinny squeak of his voice might be a non-starter for some, but if you can get past that, it becomes quite clear that his character isn’t a one-note bit. He’s naïve and innocent, but capable of well-timed snark. There’s a dryness to some of his asides that displays a welcome maturity. Almost every line out of his mouth packs a clever punch, to the point where it’s easy to imagine the giggle-heavy energy of the writers’ room as they were spit-balling new zingers to fluff up the screenplay. Much — arguably too much — of the comedy is owed to Marcel’s squeaky, stuttering delivery, mispronouncing people and place names like an eager first-grader, a stylized awkwardness not too dissimilar from the likes of a Nathan Fielder (who does appear in a voice role). Most of what will win over viewers, however, is Marcel’s deeply wholesome fascination with the breadth of the world around him. In between jokes or in more melancholy moments, he’ll throw out lines like, “I appreciate [life’s] different beauties,” musings reminiscent of an Emerson or Thoreau. His literally wide-eyed awe of everything complements the film’s sun-soaked, poetic visual language. Marcel is framed from high and low, close up and far, around the house, in the garden with Nanna Connie. These varied angles of perspective defamiliarize the commonplace, lending even the most mundane of brief settings with a remarkable monumentality.
Perhaps what’s key to Marcel the Shell’s power is the time of its release. Back in 2010, you could admire the gimmick for what it was: a cutesy, quirky ode to the little things in life with some chuckles thrown in. But in these pandemic times, the film’s themes of finding connection and choosing adventure hit more like a much-needed panacea. Beyond that, Marcel the Shell doesn’t articulate anything too ambitious, but what it does say, it communicates arrestingly, memorably encapsulated by Nanna Connie’s stirring ode to living in the film’s back half. Connie’s character supplies an additional dimension to Marcel, an adult reverence for life born from an appreciation of mortality. Lots of family-friendly flicks have messages woven in to give the story a pulse, but few do so with this much of a refined sensibility. That’s not to say this film is without its structural kinks. The pacing in its opening section labors, and a piece of one particular scene preaches the whole “point” of the movie directly to the audience — not that these are fatal offenses, but they’re more than a little distracting. The ending, too, is a tad too drawn out, though it still manages to cap things off on a resonant note. But at the end of day, most folks are coming to this film for the feels and laughs, which they’ll get and then some.