A Tiny Star Evokes Big Emotions in the Charming 'Marcel the Shell With Shoes On' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Tiny Star Evokes Big Emotions in the Charming 'Marcel the Shell With Shoes On'

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Published June 22, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 22, 2022 at 2:02 p.m.


An unusual Airbnb squatter befriends a filmmaker in Fleischer-Camp's charming all-ages film. - COURTESY OF A24 PRESS
  • Courtesy Of A24 Press
  • An unusual Airbnb squatter befriends a filmmaker in Fleischer-Camp's charming all-ages film.

Back in the days when online video was still a novelty, a series of short stop-motion-animated mockumentaries called "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" caused a YouTube sensation. Now Marcel stars in a forthcoming theatrical feature directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp, who made the original series.

Equally suitable for kids and adults, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On will have a special in-person screening on Sunday, June 26, at 2:30 p.m. at Main Street Landing Film House in Burlington, presented by the Vermont International Film Foundation (free; reserve tickets at vtiff.org). Vermont native Nick Paley, who cowrote and -edited the movie, will do a post-screening Q&A via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles.

The deal

Marcel the Shell (voice of comedian Jenny Slate) looks like a kid's craft project: a one-inch-tall shell equipped with a single googly eye and a pair of tiny shoes. If he were lurking in the nooks and crannies of your home, pilfering a slice of bread for a mattress and the occasional egg for sustenance, you probably wouldn't notice him. And that's how Marcel and his grandmother, Connie (Isabella Rossellini), have managed to eke out an existence in a rambling Airbnb.

One day, a long-term guest named Dean (Fleischer-Camp) notices the pair. A filmmaker, he befriends Marcel and trains his camera on him, producing the faux documentary we're watching.

Marcel reveals that his kind normally live in communities of at least 20, but a series of tragic events has left him and Connie alone. Dean offers to use the resources of the human world to help Marcel find his lost family. But will the price be higher than a small, secretive shell is willing to pay?

Will you like it?

So, just how twee is Marcel the Shell With Shoes On? No doubt about it: This movie is definitely for you if you love miniatures, crafts and cunning little dioramas that look like they belong on Pinterest — all swathed in Bianca Cline's gauzy cinematography.

You don't have to love that aesthetic to love the movie, though, because there's nothing cloying about Slate's performance. Marcel is cute, yes, and he's a naïf about the vast world that looms beyond his home. But he's also a survivor with a tough, sassy side and a sharp eye for human contradictions. Like Dean, we quickly learn not to underestimate him.

In children's fiction, anthropomorphized objects occupy a place partway between the human and the nonhuman, their liminal status letting them serve as outlets for children's ambivalence about aspects of the adult world. Here, the insular, homesteading lifestyle of Marcel and Connie initially evokes memories of the pandemic lockdown. The two of them are a pod, mourning a larger community that seems lost forever.

As we get closer to them, though, we realize that the shells aren't simply metaphors for modern humanity. Their culture and customs are interwoven with ours — they love "60 Minutes" and quote the poetry of Philip Larkin — yet they retain an otherness and a critical distance from us.

When Dean introduces Marcel to the internet, clips starring the shell go viral. Marcel is initially thrilled by the new tech tools and tickled by his fame. But when that fame begins to compromise his privacy — and threaten Connie's precarious health — he develops a darker attitude.

"This isn't a community," Marcel says ruefully, watching hundreds of unhelpful comments scroll by on the screen. "It's an audience." The critique of social media isn't new, but perhaps it takes a sentient shell to put it so succinctly.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On may express the millennial generation's yearning to retreat and cocoon, to take refuge from an overwhelmingly connected world in crafts and cuteness and an illusion of self-sufficiency. Marcel's awed terror when he gets a view of the city outside is poignant. But Connie offers a counterpoint, counseling him — and us — not to fear the unfamiliar. Rossellini anchors the film with a performance that conveys gentle humor and hard-won maturity with every word.

If Marcel the Shell With Shoes On has one false note, it's a scene in which a TV celebrity shows up to inform us that Marcel's story illustrates the value of community. We already know that!

But the moment is a blessedly brief one in a movie that almost never talks down to its audience. It's the rare film that adults can enjoy whether they have kids in tow or not. And if they do, the post-film discussions could be fruitful and fascinating.

If you like this, try...

The Secret World of Arrietty (2012; HBO Max, rentable): Marcel and his family aren't the first tiny, sentient fictional creatures to live unseen in a human dwelling. Remember The Borrowers, by Mary Norton? This Studio Ghibli animation adapts the children's book series with art and whimsy.

Toy Story 4 (2019; Disney+, rentable): With its anthropomorphized toys, Pixar's entire Toy Story series covers territory similar to Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, but its final entry (so far) goes to some particularly intriguing places.

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022; in theaters and rentable): If a pair of googly eyes glued to a shell can make you cry, how about a pair of googly eyes glued to a rock? That oddball image carries great emotional weight in Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's absurdist romp through the multiverse.