I’ve been a fan of Jenny Slate for a long time. She’s a tremendous actress, one of the funniest comedians in the world, and an almost unequaled voice talent. In particular, her work on Bob’s Burgers, The Great North, and Big Mouth is just astounding. She has an almost unparalleled ability to breathe life into animated characters, particularly those with goofy personalities.
However, I confess I was unaware of her work on a series of YouTube short films called Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, which began in 2010. Working with her then-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp, Slate voiced the title character, a one-inch tall miniature seashell with one googly eye, who makes curious and pithy observations about the world around him. I’m surprised I had never heard of these shorts before, as the concept is highly intriguing and the design of the stop-motion shell absolutely darling.
Thankfully, there is now a cinematic, feature-length adaptation of the series for all the world to see, and it’s simply marvelous to behold. A film like Marcel the Shell is one of those rare accomplishments that brings the scale of the big screen down to the tiniest of levels, and yet still feels huge because of the emotional and creative heft behind the project. Slate does tremendous voice work as always, and the movie is sneakily one of the most profound and relevant pieces of entertainment so far this year, especially for younger audiences.
Filmed as a mockumentary, Fleischer-Camp is largely behind the camera, serving as both director and actor, playing a version of himself, who has encountered Marcel offscreen and decided to film the little guy for a future project. In an example of art imitating life, Dean meets Marcel in a largely abandoned house that is used as an Airbnb, which he rents after separating from his wife. However, there is no acrimony in the affair, as Dean simply admits to Marcel, voiced by his former spouse, that his ex is wonderful, but that they grew apart as people and their feelings changed. Right off the bat we get a truly mature look at divorce via a meta reference. That’s how smart this film is in just the opening moments, to say nothing of the fact that Slate and Fleischer-Camp’s previous relationship allows for an ease of performance, as they have built-in chemistry and rapport.
Marcel is precocious and observational, living most of his life unseen yet maintaining the house via various contraptions. Most of them don’t hold up to much scrutiny, but we’re also watching a movie about a talking seashell, so it still fits within the micro-universe that we’re building here. Does it make sense that Marcel would travel around the house inside a tennis ball? Not really. I mean, how is he supposed to see where he’s going through the rubber and fur, not to mention get back upstairs once he comes down? But when you see the opening image of said ball moving about in intentional directions completely on its own, you’re too enchanted to care about these nittiest of nitpicks.
Because that’s what Marcel is, just the most charming character you could possibly meet. The wonder with which he sees the world is guaranteed to put a smile on your face and fill your very soul with whimsy. The way he playfully argues with Dean, mostly teasing him about asking tons of questions but not answering any himself because he wants to maintain something of a detached role, is not only funny but lovingly sweet. As Marcel’s grandmother, Nana Connie (voiced affectionately by Isabella Rossellini) puts it, he likes to show off for Dean, performing a little bit extra for the heretofore unprecedented attention.
All of this endearing treacle would be satisfying enough on its own, and it’s probably what makes up the bulk of the three short films that preceded this. But in stretching this to feature length, Fleischer-Camp, Slate, and co-writers Nick Paley and Elizabeth Holm do something truly unexpected and inspired. They find a way to ask much bigger questions and tackle much heavier issues than such a lighthearted affair would ever suggest, but do so in a way that can be translated to children without condescension. Only in the likes of Laika Animation films do you see this kind of intellectual honesty with a young audience, and the execution here is simply amazing.
Themes of family, love, loss, yearning, ambition, coping, responsibility, and critical thought are all expertly woven into Marcel’s story. The reason he and Connie live together by themselves (save the occasional renter) is because the house’s previous owners were a romantic couple called Mark and Larissa who did not end on good terms (played by Thomas Mann from Kong: Skull Island and Rosa Salazar of Alita: Battle Angel). When the pair yelled at each other, it became a “shelter in place” drill for all the other shells from Marcel’s family (plus some other miniature denizens) to hide in a sock drawer. This was an effective strategy until the pair broke up and Mark hastily emptied said drawer (and all his others, presumably) into a suitcase before walking out. From then on, it was just Marcel and Connie.
I mean, that’s a lot to take in for a young mind, and it’s handled about as deftly as possible. You have a young character witnessing a shouting match and trying to figure out how to process it. You have what are essentially emergency response plans in place to help him try to avoid trauma. You have a devastating loss and the insecurity that comes with loneliness. You’re shown Marcel’s ability to adapt and move forward in the face of something profound. You get an amazing degree of gentle good humor as a coping mechanism. And most importantly, you see his sense of duty and protectiveness, taking it upon himself to look after his one remaining relative in Connie. There’s so much that’s on this tyke’s little shelly shoulders, and you just wish you could find some way to give him the biggest hug because of how amazingly positive and well-adjusted he is.
This is especially true when it comes to Connie, who over the course of the film displays symptoms of dementia. This cuts me right to the quick, because I’ve spent the last two years watching this condition destroy my mother from the inside, to the point where she is, if you’ll forgive the pun, a shell of her former self. I make jokes about it – and everything – because that’s MY coping mechanism, but to see this fragile little thing go through it was enough to choke me up on more than one occasion. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and yet here’s a tiny cartoon shell with a slightly cracked voice putting into as few words as possible every emotion – good and bad – I’ve had about this situation, and doing it more poignantly than I ever could. Again, it’s the fact that the film is so honest yet sensitive about the whole thing that really sells it. How can a shell understand what I’m going through better than I can? It boggles the mind in the best and most comforting way possible.
But even in the film’s more upbeat moments, this emotional and intellectual credibility shines through. Dean eventually uploads his footage to YouTube, essentially recreating the process of the original films, and Marcel becomes an overnight viral sensation. At first he’s flattered and excited about the attention that his simple existence could warrant, but then he also gets a quick lesson in the shallowness of fame. After attempting to use this newfound platform as a means to get information on his missing kin, he finds that most people watching are just “fans,” and that they either can’t help, or don’t want to, but they’ll still crowd around his house to take selfies. People want to piggyback off his exposure, not solve the underlying problem, because it has nothing to do with them. There are a TON of so-called “influencers” out there who would do well to get this degree of much-needed perspective.
I found myself astonished at how easily the creative team, through Marcel, was able to distill some crucial universal experiences. When an offer of help comes to the shell from one of his favorite people, it’s met with fear and hesitation, not because Marcel is particularly skeptical, but because he, like all of us, can’t reconcile the hope for success with the added misery that’s sure to come should the effort fail. Connie has one of best moments in the entire film as she finds the exact way to encourage and push Marcel to the right decision without ever outright manipulating him. It all comes together so magically that by the end, I found myself sobbing to the likes of “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” for God’s sake. My vision is clouding up just remembering the moment. I’ll never hear the song the way I used to ever again.
And all of this is done through some of the simplest (yet still 100% genius) stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen. Yes, you can see the occasional fingerprint or wrinkled section of a piece of paper to know where the previous frames were shot, but I honestly don’t care. The way Fleischer-Camp is able to make Marcel into this fully alive character on such a small scale is nothing sort of masterful, combining practical effects with rudimentary models to make something that feels truly unique. You feel like you could reach into the screen and touch Marcel, have a conversation with him, and gaze in wide-eyed euphoria as he giddily – and at times hilariously, it should be noted – goes about his day-to-day life.
I’m truly gobsmacked at how beautifully all this comes together. The jokes, the animation, the pure heart of it all, it’s something beyond special. And of course, there’s Jenny Slate’s absolutely perfect vocal performance, conveying Marcel’s humor, anxiety, empathy, and sense of wonder without any hint of pretention in such a soothing little innocent rasp. The film gets its nationwide release next week, and honestly, there may not be a better family movie this year. If you have kids who can handle the weightier themes, or if you just want to nurture your inner child, you owe it to yourself to see this.
I mean, they made me cry over a seashell! What more can I possibly say?
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who are your favorite voice actors? Did you ever think you could smile about keeping a piece of lint as a pet? Let me know!