It’s funny — a few days ago I caught up with The House on Netflix and greatly admired the skill and imagination of that British stop-motion animated film. The following day I saw another stop-motion movie, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, which opens this weekend at a few of our cineplexes and also screens at the Modern Art Museum. While there’s a lot of 2022 still left, I think it might be the movie of the year.
The feature is an extension of a series of YouTube short films, and since the shorts are light on story, the feature does great work to fill it in. Dean Fleischer-Camp (who portrays himself) is a documentary filmmaker who copes with a painful divorce by renting out an L.A. house through Airbnb. We don’t see how he meets Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate), a 1-inch-tall mollusk who talks and wears pink shoes. With only his grandma Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) for company, Marcel has acquired the knack for living on his own and avoiding the house’s renters and their dogs — he and Dean’s wire-haired fox terrier do not get along. He used to be part of a colony of shells, but Marcel’s parents, brother, and everyone he knew were carelessly packed up and taken away by the house’s owner one night. He and his grandma were spared only because they were busy watching 60 Minutes, as they did every Sunday. When Dean’s YouTube interviews with Marcel gain millions of views, Marcel thinks to use his fame to find his family. That quest becomes urgent after Nana takes a hard fall off a dryer and can no longer move around well.
Dean does not appear on screen in the YouTube shorts, but here we do see him briefly when Marcel gets hold of his camera. Marcel’s childlike wonder at the world, which made the shorts so charming, is undiminished here, as he talks on the phone with the Airbnb rep and ends a business conversation with: “What does a raspberry taste like?” He’s not a total naïf, though, as he calls out Dean for hiding behind his camera rather than facing up to his own pain. Dean takes Marcel up on a hill with a view of Los Angeles, and the shell’s depression at seeing how big the world is outside his house feels real.
After watching YouTube footage of Singapore’s Paper Lantern Festival, he makes his own lantern out of a discarded champagne cage, a candle, and some coffee filters, and sees his hot air balloon float into the sky. Then he hears a neighbor’s dog barking at the thing and says, “What a stupid idiot.” The humor here is generally pretty low-key, but the filmmakers remember to cut it with something broad every once in a while, like Marcel’s furious encounter with a squirrel that gets into the house. (It’s set to Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever,” which makes it funnier, though I couldn’t tell you why.)
Great comic character that he is, Marcel becomes a moving one as well when he grapples with the prospect of losing the only family member he has left and worries that his grandma being interviewed by 60 Minutes will be too much for her. The film culminates with our little hero, having experienced great sorrow and great joy, stands alone by a cracked window listening to the sound of the wind blowing through his shell and has a mystical revelation about his place in the cosmos and the interconnectedness of all things living and dead. The feature Marcel the Shell With Shoes On turns Marcel’s world-view into a grand philosophical statement without losing the heart and decency that made the shorts a viral sensation. That achievement will send you out into the world looking for the almighty in the next gentle breeze.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
Voices by Jenny Slate and Isabella Rossellini. Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp. Written by Dean Fleischer-Camp, Jenny Slate, and Nick Paley. Rated PG.