More than a decade ago, a small anthropomorphic shell with a squeaky voice caught the collective eyes of the internet. Marcel, a shell with crude googley eyes and glued-on shoes, charmed in a series of stop-motion shorts where he described the world from his small point of view: a slice of life mockumentary about how he drives a bug for a car, wears a lentil for a hat, and uses human toenails as skis.
A collaboration between Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate, who voices Marcel, the shorts imbued a gentle and sweet nature to their tiny protagonist, and mostly felt like clever improv between the creators. As charming as they were, a feature-length iteration of that idea feels like a cash-grab, non-starter. And indeed: Fleischer-Camp confirmed that early pitches of a Marcel movie featured the shell in more outsized situations, like fighting crime with Ryan Reynolds a la Detective Pikachu, or getting lost in a big city a la Babe 2.
Fortunately, Fleischer-Camp and Slate had the good sense to keep things more grounded. As a result, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On pulls off an impossible feat by being as funny and puzzlingly tender as its inspiration.
Written by Fleischer-Camp, Slate, and Nick Paley, Marcel the Shell keeps up the mockumentary style and follows Dean as he stays in an Airbnb inhabited by Marcel and his grandmother, Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini). Though the two live alone, they once belonged to a community of shells, which was disrupted when the homeowners split up and mistakenly removed most of the shells from their hiding place.
Dean, a documentarian who is going through his own breakup, captures the way this community disruption has changed Marcel’s life: the daily and impossible tasks of collecting food, finding water, and living comfortably with his grandmother. It’s still a happy enough life, but as Nana Connie begins to experience dementia and confusion, Marcel’s world is in danger of shrinking even more.
This might feel like a “lockdown” movie, but this film was likely conceived well before COVID-19 was a word in anyone’s vocabulary, and that’s because its message transcends the pandemic. Marcel the Shell documents the way communities – real, in-person communities of people – support each other and keep life from becoming more than a series of impossible chores. Though the film is just as emotional as it is funny, it doesn’t wallow in it. Marcel is a brave little shell who gets to work and does what he needs to do to get through the days, just like anyone else, while his loneliness hangs on pause in the background.
Ask anyone who’s graduated from school and found their friend base getting smaller and smaller; anyone who’s getting older and finding they have fewer close family members left; anyone attempting to care for young children with little support. Our society is structured in a way that makes the daily task of living a challenge for many, and it’s particularly difficult when we do that alone. COVID may have exacerbated a lack of physical community – one that can’t be cured by social media – but it certainly did not cause it.
The unexpected star of Marcel the Shell, though, is the newcomer to this talking shell world: Rossellini. She plays the special kind of grandparent some of us, myself included, been lucky enough to know, one who has the mental energy and zest of someone younger even as their body begins to limit them. Rossellini voices Nana Connie with gusto and strength, a grandmother far more formidable than she is frail. As she spends her days communing with nature in her garden and embodying a sense of peace, you get the sense that she is a grandmother with few regrets, one whose death only scares her insofar she doesn’t want Marcel to be alone.
It’s difficult not to connect with Marcel the Shell, because it hits on beats that are at once universal and incredibly personal. The loss of family, both slow and sudden, the loss of community, and the hopefulness brought by connection and change are all perfectly encapsulated in this charming movie. Thinking of the Ryan Reynolds detective team-up that could have been, it’s a small miracle that this movie ended up being a worthwhile venture. It’s even more miraculous that it ended up being as effective, if not more effective, than some of Pixar’s greatest hits.