No good work goes unpunished these days. If it is a hit in one medium, it will surely be adapted into another, recycled into the ground until even its most loyal defenders absolutely hate it. In the 1980s, Mel Brooks critiqued contemporary movie making by shouting, “Merchandising! Merchandising!” into the capitalist void. Today, the phrase may be more like, “Content! Content!”
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is not bad enough to be the poster child of this phenomenon, but it does offer a lesson for discerning film viewers: don’t be fooled by cuddly, little creatures. No matter how much cute and charming innocence is baked on top of a movie, uneven, mostly-directionless films will still be just that. To watch Marcel is to repeatedly ask oneself, “So what?”
Based on the viral YouTube videos created by Dean Fleischer-Camp (who directs and plays himself in the film), Jenny Slate (who voices Marcel and co-wrote the script with Fleisher-Camp and Nick Paley), and Elizabeth Holm, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a stop-motion mockumentary acting both as an origin story and coming-of-age tale. The film begins with the disembodied voice of Fleisher-Camp, who discovers Marcel in his rental house. Immediately fascinated, he starts documenting the life of the little shell.
Marcel lives with his grandmother, Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). The two were separated from the rest of their extended family and shell community when the previous human occupants of their home had a loud fight and broke-up. When such fights occurred, the shells had a policy of gathering in “the man’s” sock drawer for safety. As the man stormed out of the home in the wake of the fight, he quickly threw all of his clothes, and thus the shells, into a suitcase and never returned.
For anyone who needs a refresher, the original YouTube videos were no more than a few minutes in length. They featured Marcel telling the audience about his life, always showcasing how he, a tiny shell, went about his day in imaginative ways. Often, the videos directed the viewer to laugh at his expense. In the film, Marcel becomes more than the butt of the joke. He shares his thoughts on life, loneliness, and family, including his role as caretaker to Connie. The film’s most redeeming attribute is its disarming sincerity. Marcel grapples with grief and loss. He struggles to feel a sense of self in this world. There are no reflexive ha-ha moments, or concern with cringe. The movie commits to the bit.
The film acts as a hybrid prequel-sequel-retelling of the original videos. Marcel goes viral on YouTube, reenacting real events. The attention becomes both a blessing and a curse as adoring fans begin swarming the home and threaten his and Connie’s safety. But the eye of the public also gives him a chance to search for his family. The shells, it turns out, were huge fans of 60 Minutes journalist Leslie Stahl, who makes a cameo in the film and interviews Marcel as part of his search.
Movie depictions of virality are in vogue. You know the drill: montages of YouTube and TikTok clips, broadcast news reports, and the protagonist grappling with their new fame. The platitudes of this trend abound in Marcel the Shell, but the cliche “critique” of virality offered by the film, if there really even is one, falls particularly flat. If anything, the film feels more like an opportunistic placation of the viral frenzy.
As both the actual and fictionalized director, Fleischer-Camp cannot seem to decide what role he wants to play. Sometimes, the film takes on a fly-on-the-wall, cinéma vérité style. He leaves Marcel alone to wonder and, at times, fall astray. Other times, Fleischer-Camp is an active participant. He talks to Marcel, gives him counsel, and even appears on the fictional 60 Minutes broadcast about the shell. This disjunction makes it hard to know just how we are supposed to view Marcel. Is he an animal to be studied? Or a sentient being in need of help and guidance on his journey? As such, there are times when the film dips more into pity than genuine empathy, leaving it with a cold feel.
Slate and Rossellini are both solid in their respective roles, and the stop-motion is a joy to watch. Thankfully, the filmmakers did not take the CGI route. Though Marcel the Shell: The Animated Series feels inevitable, as do the Brooksian calls for merchandise that will most certainly follow. Maybe Marcel will become the A24-equivalent of Baby Yoda.
The film mistakes backstory for depth and affect for empathy. It relies too much on sentimentality and on the hope that charm will overpower the cookie-cutter template on which they unceremoniously thrust the story of a cute, little creature. A talking, stop-motion shell with shoes is a great YouTube shtick. Fodder for a feature film, though, it does not make.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On debuts in theaters on June 24, 2022