For the last few years many of us have lived an isolated life, away from our loved ones and our communities due to the ongoing global pandemic. Even for those less isolated, life as we know has been forever altered. If you told me one of the most profound and introspective films to come out of Covid isolation cinema was going to be about a talking one-inch shell and his grandmother, I’m not sure I’d believe you. And yet. . .the big-hearted mockumentary Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate’s update of their viral short films from a decade ago, is just that. A cinematic hug with just the right amount of melancholy, their film speaks directly to the moment, yet also contends with timeless themes inherent to the human condition.
Familiarity with their earlier shorts, or the kids books they spawned, is not necessary to enjoy the feature, though it may add even greater texture. All you really need to know is that the titular shell Marcel, voiced by Slate, lives a solitary life with his Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) in a house-turned AirBnB. Several years earlier their whole family went missing when the residents of the house broke up, leaving Macel and his grandmother behind to fend for themselves. Soon long-term tenant Dean (Fleischer-Camp himself), a filmmaker in the middle of his own breakup, notices Marcel and begins making a documentary, which in turn leads to viral internet fame, and a search for his long-lost family.
Using subtle stop-motion techniques, Fleischer-Camp brings Marcel and Nana Connie’s delicate world to life, deftly weaving it with our own. Existing in the cold, hard world is hard when you’re that tiny. Thankfully, Marcel’s ingenious spirit overcomes his loneliness. While Nana Connie spends her time gardening outside, Marcel has rigged the entire house through Rube Goldberg-like contraptions to help them both move around, and also gather food, water, and much-needed supplies. Like the stop-motion anthology The House earlier this year, the attention to detail in their surroundings adds to the immense pleasure of spending time with them. Production designer Liz Toonkel clearly had a blast finding ways to playfully transform ordinary household objects into something wondrous.
As anyone who has had to spend an inordinate amount of time inside their home the last few years knows, there’s an art to finding contentment and joy in the simple things that surround you. Each room is rendered with exquisite detailing as we follow Marcel’s daily adventures, filled with equal amounts of awe and peril. One show stopping moment comes when Marcel skates on the dust buildup on a coffee table, somehow imbuing the particles with the same majesty as fresh fallen snow.
Both Slate and Rossellini give astonishing voice performances. There is a sweet naivete to Marcel that could easily tip towards overly twee, but Slate manages to keep him grounded with occasional wry sarcasm and hints of melancholy coursing alongside his childlike sense of wonder. Her expert comic timing bounces perfectly off of Dean’s off-camera omnipresence, bombarding him with questions, then replying to his answers with the kind of comic bluntness kids are known for.
Rossellini has always been a unique presence on screen, and here she channels her lilting voice into the calming gravitas of a knowing elder. Her soothing manner constantly assures Marcel that things will be alright while simultaneously guiding him towards the bravery he’ll need to face life on his own someday. I started watching the film expecting some light, diverting whimsy, and thanks in large part to Rossellini’s deft voice work, I found myself in tears.
Its mockumentary mechanisms allow both Marcel and Nana Connie to explore the complex feelings that arise within them from their broken family. Through their frank discussions of the grief they feel over the sudden loss of their community, our own suppressed feelings arise. We’ve all had to keep carrying on in a world filled with unimaginable losses. Sometimes you need to be reminded that there is more to life than just the worst moments.
Somehow seeing Marcel and Nana Connie find the strength to weather life’s knocks, big and small, and grow stronger afterwards brings with it an unabashed hope that has been sorely lacking in cinema of late. Marcel’s desire to not “just survive, [but] have a good life,” should be what we all strive towards. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On serves as a reminder that we all have more fortitude deep inside us than we might think.
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is out Friday in limited release, and in theaters nationwide on July 15.