This article contains spoilers for “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.”
Last week, I sauntered down to the Goldsmith Family Cinema to see “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” Friday’s pick for the Film Series. Walking to the theater, I was giddy. I have long been a fan of the film’s star and cowriter Jenny Slate—from her work in independent movies like “Obvious Child” to her recent memoir “Little Weirds” —and was excited to see how she would bring one of her most beloved characters to the big screen.
For the uninitiated, Marcel is a character that Slate and her longtime collaborator Dean Fleischer-Camp introduced to the world in a 2010 stop-motion short called “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” After the film was posted on YouTube, Marcel, a one-inch tall talking shell, quickly became a viral phenomenon, admired for his witticisms and deep musings about life.
The movie picks up where the short film left off, introducing viewers to Marcel’s home life and the current obstacles in his way. At the beginning of the movie, we meet Dean (Fleischer-Camp, also the film’s director), a filmmaker who moves into an Airbnb following the dissolution of his marriage. Dean soon discovers Marcel (Slate) living in the house with his grandmother, Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini), and a pet ball of lint named Alan. Taken with Marcel and his antics, Dean begins to film short clips of Marcel and his grandmother and uploads them to YouTube. When these videos go viral, Marcel is at once filled with excitement and overwhelmed by his newfound fame. In this way, the film is a metafictional take on Slate’s experience with viral fame, one which was both insightful and entertaining.
As the film progresses, we find out Marcel and his grandmother used to live with a whole community of shells who were displaced as a result of an argument between the Airbnb’s previous residents. Marcel grieves the loss of his family and, in their absence, must find new ways to survive and sustain himself and his Nana Connie. As much as the film focuses on Marcel and the humorous ways he navigates the world, it’s also about his grief and how it follows him throughout the movie. Illuminating the pain Marcel feels at the loss of his family, Slate humanizes him, allowing viewers to sympathize with Marcel through his experience of grief.
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” strikes the perfect balance between the emotional and the adorable. There are parts of the movie that are too cute not to love. In order to get from place to place, Marcel rolls around the house in a tennis ball. He sleeps in between two pieces of bread which he calls his “breadroom.” Marcel and his grandmother are obsessed with watching “60 Minutes” together and share a particular affinity for television journalist Lesley Stahl.
Marcel’s relationship with his grandmother is one of the most touching parts of the film. Since Nana Connie is the only family Marcel has left, he is very protective of her. Marcel is initially reluctant to comply with an interview request from “60 Minutes” after Nana Connie falls off the washing machine and injures her shell. Although Marcel wants to postpone the interview until his grandmother feels better, Nana Connie encourages Marcel to do the interview, which he finally agrees to, hoping it will help him find his family.
After filming the “60 Minutes” segment, Marcel and Dean find Nana Connie unresponsive, discovering that she passed away during the interview. What follows is one of the most emotionally devastating pieces of cinema I have ever seen, one that forced me to ask myself several questions, among them: “why is a tiny shell making me think about death?” and “am I crying? Yeah, I think I’m crying.” In a moving scene, Marcel buries Nana Connie in the garden and grieves her death. While Marcel has finally achieved his dream of being on “60 Minutes” and meeting Lesley Stahl, he has lost the one person in his life who loved him unconditionally.
But not all is lost! After doing some digging, the “60 Minutes” team tracks down the whereabouts of the Airbnb’s previous owners and films an additional segment at Mark’s new house. When Mark (Thomas Mann) and Larissa (Rosa Salazar), the couple who used to live in the Airbnb, get into an argument, Marcel discovers his whole family in a sock drawer. This moment in the film was not only adorable—imagine 50 tiny shells screaming—but it was also so well-earned. After the emotional journey that Marcel endures throughout the movie, as a viewer, it was satisfying to witness him finally reconnect with his family and feel loved and cared for.
After they cheerfully reunite, Marcel and his family of shells rebuild the glorious community they once had. They roll around the house in tennis balls. They finally hold a proper funeral for Nana Connie. Despite being grateful to be reunited with his family, Marcel is soon overwhelmed by the abundance of stimuli in his new environment. He confesses to Dean that as a result he often retreats to the basement and sits by the window, appreciating the sound of the wind as it blows through his shell. Now that Marcel is surrounded by loved ones, he cherishes these moments of quiet contemplation, where he can decompress and sit with his thoughts. After struggling with loneliness for so long, Marcel has finally turned solitude into strength.
As a long-time fan of Slate’s work, I found that this movie exceeded all my expectations. With “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” Slate and Fleischer-Camp have transformed an iconic YouTube sensation into a fully realized character, one whose experiences are endearing and deeply human. I loved this movie and I can’t wait to see what Slate does next.
Ben Togut can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.