‘Marcel the Shell With Shoes On’ Is The Melancholic Whimsy This Summer Needs

A24/Elevation Pictures

With three short films under Marcel’s belt, a feature seems the logical next step for the googly-eyed anthropomorphic seashell. Any trepidation that the mockumentary style deployed to such endearing, warm effect in the (award-winning) 2010, 2011, and 2014 shorts will buckle under the weight of a feature-length film is quickly dispelled; the straightforward plot of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is propelled by the whimsy of malapropisms undercut with existential – almost cosmic, considering Marcel’s inch-high worldview – melancholy. The result is a musing on life, love, and belonging amidst escapist hijinks and an early contender for the film of the year. 

We never see one leading actor and barely see the other. Jenny Slate captures the mischievous ingenuity, dogged determination, and unselfconscious reflection expressed as the stop-motion Marcel navigates his oversized world (the film 3D-printed multiple shells to ensure perfect matches). Director Dean Fleischer Camp plays film director Dean, who moves into Marcel’s home after converting it into an Airbnb. The film’s meta-narrative continues as Marcel becomes a YouTube star, capturing hearts worldwide as he makes a plea to find his shell family lost in a thoughtless human moment. 

There’s perhaps too much cynicism of online fan spaces, who cannot and/or will not help Marcel, instead choosing selfies outside his house and bothering his Nanna Connie (a spotlight-stealing Isabella Rossellini). But this is not an overly mean-spirited film, and its trust in American television institutions is strangely sweet if entirely old-fashioned. But this openhearted belief in the film medium to touch and change lives fits Marcel’s mix of cheekiness and innocence. 

The film wastes no time showing life from one inch high, starting with Marcel’s daily routines and only introducing the conflict halfway through. The Malick-esque atmosphere is not accidental; dappled lighting through leaves, rich, soft garden dirt, golden honey on window panes, and the tiny plonks Marcel makes as he hurls himself again and again on a spoon (it makes sense in context) all work to find the tangible and magical in a very ordinary California suburb.

Creating a feature film around a single original character, even one as precious and unique as Marcel, is a risk, but extended time in his expanded world does not take any second for granted. Everyone behind the film clearly believed in this little shell’s adventures; with its stop-motion animation, the film took seven years to complete. Additionally, despite the titular character’s poignant musings, enough irreverent humour is sprinkled to eliminate accusations of pretension. Life from one inch high has never seemed magical, overwhelming, or profound. Heartwarming, funny, and curious about our place in the universe without needing answers, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is seven-year labour of love.

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On opened in select theatres on July 1

by Carmen Paddock

Carmen is a Pennsylvanian transplant to Glasgow who writes about film, television, and opera. A lover of maximalism and musicals, much of her writing focuses on cross-media adaptation. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ludwig, Cabaret, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Moulin Rouge!. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie

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