‘Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’ review: Cutesy meme becomes cozy meditation on loss
Are you ready for a shell with a googly eye to make you cry? I was not.
Of course, I remember the hype that broke out in 2010 (yes, 12 years there is), when Marcel the shod shell became a YouTube sensation and a twee meme. But frankly, I never had the appeal of the little critter, who muttered that she was small and that he didn’t understand the big world. However, all these years later, Marcel is back with a feature film and a conscious and willfully silly exploration of loss that caused even this hard-shelled critic to crack and crumble.
Like YouTube shorts, Marcel the shod shell centers on conversations between the titular mollusk and a curious documentarian. In the film, these exchanges turn into a quest to find Marcel’s long-lost family, which had been scattered to the winds by a cruel twist of fate. Fascinated but also determined to help, the documentarian uploads videos of Marcel, hoping the internet’s attention will yield search results. Along the way, many adorable shenanigans occur, involving pesky dogs, a rolling tennis ball, his beloved grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), and 60 minutes‘ television journalist Lesley Stahl. Yet amid these bursts of playful delight, there are tender tangles of loss.
There is the loss of Marcel’s family, but other ways of grieving surface. His grandmother grows frail and Marcel’s small voice quivers as he tries to protect them both from the inevitable. But beyond that, there’s a heartbreak that plays with the miracle of this film’s creation. To explain this, let’s take a step back.
Marcel the shod shell contains a loss meta level.
Originally, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On was a joint project between comedian Jenny Slate and her future husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp. He was the curious “documentary” and she was the brave shell. Since then, Slate and Fleischer-Camp have divorced. She had a very public romance with Chris Evans, then married someone else in 2021. (12 years is a long time.) For Fleischer-Camp, her private life has been less public. Nevertheless, life undeniably goes on. And yet, here he comes back not only to this collaboration but also to the role of documentary filmmaker. And in Marcel the shod shell, Dean the documentary filmmaker meets Marcel because he goes through a rupture, requiring the rental of this Airbnb inhabited by seashells. It’s hard not to see a nod to his own history and that of Slate.
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So, in a sense, Marcel and documentarian Dean grapple with how loss can drastically change their respective worlds. In this they found each other and a friendship that inspired them to open up and grow. Because no matter how much we lose, no matter how hard it hits, no matter how much it hurts, the sun will rise, the moon will set, and life will go on whether we like it or not.
It’s a sweet promise that life can be hard and ridiculous, but isn’t there something wonderful there?
“A space in my heart grows bigger and stronger every day,” Marcel says of the gnawing grief of being miserable by loved ones. But as he says that, Dean is by his side. And while the image is pleasantly ridiculous, a shell in sneakers next to a hulking hipster intellectual, it’s heart-warming. It’s a sweet promise that life can be hard and ridiculous, but isn’t there something wonderful there?
Marcel the shod shell reflects on internet fame and fandom.
In this journey, Fleischer-Camp, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Elisabeth Holm and Nick Paley, tackles the double-edged sword of internet fame. Fans who love Marcel become first a pleasure, then a pain as their fandom becomes territorial, disrupting his quiet life. “It’s an audience”, scolds Marcel a cajoling dean, “not a community”. This mistrust does not plunge into bitterness in the face of Marcel’s real origins. But it’s a stark contrast to much of the film’s sweetness, which urges audiences to think about what’s behind such a pointed remark.
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Already online, there has been backlash against the film’s perceived seriousness, supposedly sickening and condescending to its adult audience. First of all, if an adult movie wants to be relentlessly silly and sweet, that’s how you get Barb and Star go to Vista Del MarWhich one is superb cinema. Second, despite what its detractors have assumed (by sight unseen, as far as I can tell), Marcel the shod shell isn’t an always nice movie meant to swaddle adults in its nostalgia and cuteness. Slate and Fleischer-Camp might lure us in with the familiar hook of a cuddly mollusk that muses about balls of lint and coos about a “sad kind of idiot.” But beyond that familiarity, they dive into the unsettling waters of what growing up and getting old brings. Problems that we cannot foresee. Losses that we cannot control. The grief that we cannot escape, even if you are a brave shell with shoes.
Despite what its detractors have assumed… “Marcel” isn’t an always-nice movie meant to swaddle adults in its nostalgia and cuteness.
At the end, Marcel the shod shell is more than the sum of its quirks. Of course, A24 and the feature upgrade means more articulate animation and a few celebrity cameos. But beneath the surface of the shining glow, Marcel has matured. Fleischer-Camp and Slate have joined forces to share a layered story that makes us laugh and cry, and maybe find inspiration to not take life so seriously. Take splendor in the sweet, the silly and even the sad, and you will enjoy Marcel the shell with shoes.
Marcel the shod shell opens in limited release June 22; expands nationwide on July 15.