‘Marcel the Shell With Shoes On’ Turns a Viral Sensation Into a Wonderfully Inventive Family Film

Family films sometimes tend to be too shy about being genuinely mature. Grown up themes don’t mean the movie should be a bore, but emotionally stimulating in a way shallow entertainment can’t deliver. “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is, as the title announces, about a shell named Marcel, who walks around the house he shares with his grandmother in a pair of sneakers. He observes the world, ponders life and is afraid of trying new things that make him nervous. Following Marcel around has a much more moving effect than loud movies about superheroes and monsters. Like many great family films, what Marcel goes through may just strike a deeper chord with older viewers.

Filmed in a mockumentary style, we meet Marcel (Jenny Slate) as he cares for his grandmother, Connie (Isabella Rossellini). They are the lone survivors of a mysterious tragedy that took away the rest of their shell family. When you measure one inch in height, it’s a pretty dangerous world down there. They have a piece of lint for a pet named Alan. Connie also gets along with the local bugs that roam around her garden. Marcel loves Connie very much but dreams of finding his parents. Luckily, the documentary on their life is being made by Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp), who is renting the Airbnb where the shells live. When Dean edits together some of his footage and uploads it onto the internet, the response is immediate. To Marcel’s surprise, he becomes a global internet phenomenon. Soon the media is knocking at the door, wanting to interview him and possibly help in finding his lost relatives.

The plot angle about Marcel going viral is of course a witty form of self-commentary. Marcel is the original creation of comedian Jenny Slate and filmmaker then-boyfriend Fleischer-Champ, who also directs the feature film. They originally put together the concept while being bored at a wedding and later made a video that became a YouTube sensation in 2010. Now the two have expanded the idea into a wonderful movie. The original format lends itself easily to a feature since it’s essentially a “documentary.” Slate’s voice gives Marcel’s stop-motion figure an endearing childhood feel as he shows Dean around the miniature zones he inhabits, including structures within house plants that up close look like a lush getaway. There’s a soothing joy to seeing Marcel plop around spilled honey or getting grossed out over an earthworm. He’s a real personality unaware of the surreal impossibility of his existence. We sense his enthusiasm in guiding Dean through his story, cracking jokes along the way fit for a sharp teen. 

Where “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” finds its deepest material is in his relationship with Connie. This is a story about a young person taking care of an aging adult, and in a sense learning to face the fear of independence. Connie is voiced with such loving sincerity by the great Isabella Rossellini, poking fun at Dean’s hesitancy to talk about his divorce with the bite of an aged person who has seen it all. His camera sneaks in on grandson and grandmother when 60 Minutes offers to interview Marcel and he hesitates, not wanting the outside world to intrude. Connie encourages him to let go of any fears and be bold enough to try new, exciting things. Then, she has an accident and can’t remember much. Her memory slowly develops gaps and Marcel, ever so caring, must prepare himself for how life cycles work. Certain scenes, like Connie taking a soothing bath in a soup bowl as Dean’s dog sniffs around, feel so “human” and “real” that we put logic aside. We just want the film to keep going and going.

The original Marcel video led to a New York Times bestseller and two more short films. But maybe this movie will remain the definitive capture of the idea. It could easily rank with movies like “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which brims with joy and brief melancholy, delivering a story that has valuable things to say to young viewers, yet the pathos is all for the adults. Unlike the suburban kids in throwaway YA movies, Marcel is a shell but is having to grow up fast. He loves reading comments about himself online, even as he fears the outside world wanting to get in. Growing up can be scary when the familiar is suddenly taken away, which rarely happens in a manner as frightening as losing your family. Who would have thought a shell could define such truths so eloquently. 

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” releases June 24 in select theaters.