Never has a film that I’ve seen pack such a big emotional punch with such minuscule characters. That is, until Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a film about a one-inch-tall shell (proof that size does not matter).
Written by Andrew Korpan / July 26, 2022
The film is a feature-length expansion of YouTube shorts that debuted over a decade ago. Sometimes, situations like these can work out well, but there are only so many instances of a Bottle Rocket or Lights Out that have successfully made the transition; especially when the short film mockumentaries were 3-5 minutes of Dean interviewing Marcel about his life, the question of how you can even expand that into a feature-length film is fair. Dean Fleischer-Camp wrote, edited, acted in, and directed the film and put any concerns to rest with Marcel the Shell. Don’t discount Marcel the Shell With Shoes On for its pint-size; it’s one of the best films of the year.
Marcel, voiced by the wonderful Jenny Slate, is a one-inch-tall shell that resides with his grandmother, Connie (Isabella Rossellini) in a home filled with passing faces (this because the house is an Airbnb, but this is unbeknownst to Marcel and his grandmother). A house that used to be filled with a huge community of shells is now a ghost town made up of Marcel and his grandmother. One day, after separating from his wife, a filmmaker named Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp) discovers Marcel and his grandmother, and through the power of documentaries, he sets out to document Marcel’s life and help him find his family.
Jenny Slate is a national treasure and must be protected at all costs. My first experience watching Slate was on Parks and Recreation, where most of her lines were “money, please!” But, between Everything Everywhere All at Once and now Marcel the Shell, she’s having a fantastic year. The amount of emotion that Slate can portray is admirable, especially since Marcel has very simple features: An eye and a little mouth. Isabella Rossellini voices Connie, Marcel’s grandmother, and shares some wonderful moments with Slate.
Stepping in front of the camera, Dean Fleischer-Camp plays Dean, a filmmaker who helps Marcel find his family. Full disclosure, I actually thought it was Cooper Raiff just going off of his voice — you don’t see much of Fleischer-Camp until the end — but like Raiff, Fleischer-Camp wrote, acted in, and directed his film to great results. It takes a special film-maker to do so, and Fleischer-Camp fits the bill and this is clearly a passion project for him and Slate.
Aside from the wonderful voice-acting and direction of the film, what really brings it all home is the framing. It’s rare for a film to have two cinematographers, let alone one stop-motion cinematographer and a live-action cinematographer. Bianca Cline and Eric Adkins collaborated to assist in blending Marcel into the real world. Having spoken to the two earlier this month gave me an even greater appreciation of this film because of the process that goes on behind the scenes of combining live-action and stop-motion. There is a sequence in particular where Marcel is trying to launch berries up onto a shelf. Being that he’s one-inch tall, said shelf looks like Mt. Everest for him, so the film cuts to a wide shot where we see Marcel leap off of a stair and onto a spoon, which launches the berry in the air. From a human point of view, it’s hilarious to watch as a little berry flies across the screen.
Even more impressive is how Marcel the Shell goes out of its way to make sure that it doesn’t always make Marcel out to be bite-sized. Another thing I learned when chatting with Bianca and Eric is that the filmmakers made a conscious effort to bring us to Marcel’s size so that we wouldn’t always belittle him. It’s a subtle choice, but it humanizes the character even more, especially in the scenes where he is being interviewed.
And beneath the cuteness of Marcel himself, the film explores a sweet grandson and grandmother relationship. This had an emotional connection for me as someone who has lost both of my grandmothers and really enhanced the viewing experience. But even if you don’t have the same emotional connective tissue to the film, Marcel the Shell has enough to latch on to with the story about the lost family or the fact that Marcel is still a young boy (or shell?). The lens that he sees the world through is still so innocent, and believe it or not, we were all there at one time or another.
As is the case with many A24 films, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is hard to find in theaters — it played in only 153 theaters last weekend in the U.S. — but it’s a must-see film whether it is in theaters or whenever it finally gets its home media release. The direction is wonderful, it’s a stunning and innovative combination of live-action and stop-motion, and it’s proof that certain filmmakers can expand their shorts into feature-length films while making a project just as, if not stronger than its predecessor. Oh, and while much of Marcel the Shell is a sweet film and easy viewing, have tissues prepared for a rendition of a certain Eagles song that will have the tears flowing.