Marcel the Shell—the tiny personified seashell who became a YouTube sensation in 2010 when a stop-motion short narrated in his little, halting voice found an unexpectedly passionate YouTube following—can’t quite be said to be a character voiced by the comedian and actress Jenny Slate. Rather, Marcel is Slate’s voice, or one small but meaningful aspect of it, manifested in physical form. He started life as an audio-only phenomenon, a voice invented by Slate to amuse her then-boyfriend and soon-to-be-husband, the director Dean Fleischer-Camp. Shortly afterward, Fleischer-Camp bought $6 worth of materials at a craft store—a one-inch-long shell, a single googly eye stuck on with some Sculpey, and a pink plastic pair of doll shoes—and built a creature to go with the voice. This lovable miniature mollusk-casing went on to become the protagonist not only of three micro-budget animated shorts directed by Fleischer-Camp, but of two bestselling children’s picture books co-authored by the duo and released in 2011 and 2014.
And then, in 2016, Marcel’s co-creators split up, which would seem like the natural end point for a character created via mutual collaboration by a couple. But now, eight years since Marcel’s last outing, Slate and Fleischer-Camp, both happily partnered with other people, have come back together to create a new chapter in his story: Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, a feature-length treatment that gives the anthropomorphized tchotchke a backstory, a seemingly impossible-to-attain goal, and a wise, nature-loving grandmother named (after Slate’s real-life grandmother) Nana Connie, voiced marvelously by none other than Isabella Rossellini.
Marcel and Nana Connie live together in a human-sized house, once inhabited by a feuding couple and now being rented out as an Airbnb. Its newest occupant, an aspiring filmmaker named Dean (played by Fleischer-Camp himself), meets and befriends his wee housemate and, intrigued by Marcel’s shell’s-eye perspective on life, eventually asks if he can make him the subject of a documentary film. As he shadows them with a video camera, Dean gradually learns why Marcel and Nana Connie are the house’s only remaining inhabitants of their kind: When the former owners of the place split up, one of them packed a bag in such haste that he dumped in the whole contents of a sock drawer, the same sock drawer that served as home to Marcel’s extended family.
Much of the first third or so of this slender but satisfying 90-minute film takes Dean, serving as proxy for the audience, on a tour of the house that Marcel and Connie have rigged out for their own purposes. Marcel is especially ingenious at repurposing household objects, and he takes pride in showing off his creations. A human-size sneaker tied to a piece of twine works as a zipline. A hollowed-out tennis ball is Marcel’s rolling “car.” The red-checkered lids of Bonne Maman jam jars make cheerful bistro tables. And an open makeup compact lined with a powder puff serves as the glamorous bed for Marcel’s grandmother Nana Connie, whose foreign accent, Marcel explains as earnestly as he explains everything, is a result of her having emigrated from the faraway land of … the garage.
Every child who loves playing with miniatures (and every grownup who still has a dollhouse on the floor of their home office, not that I would ever know or be anyone that crazy) will flip for these imaginative transformations of everyday domestic space into a shelter for diminutive, secret beings. The film, co-written by Slate and Fleischer-Camp with Nick Paley (who has worked as a director on Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City), at first seems to be episodic, almost sketch-like in structure. But even though the screenplay was in part based on Slate’s and Fleischer-Camp’s vocal improvisations, its initial looseness is deceptive. In fact, our observations of Marcel and Nana Connie’s quiet day-to-day lives slowly cohere into deft character sketches. Nana Connie is a practical soul who, despite her grief for her lost family, finds meaning in tending her windowbox garden and caring for injured insects. Marcel’s unshakeable optimism—his goal, he tells Dean, is to “not just survive but have a good life”—masks a deep inner melancholy, and his insistence on fixed daily routines is a defense against his fear of change.
These traits are communicated to the audience not via dialogue or exposition, but through scaled-down gestures and skillfully edited images. The script is almost diaphanous in its spareness, yet these minimally animated assemblages (often stationary but for their CGI-animated mouths) convey an enormous complexity of feeling. The comparatively bare-bones stop-motion of the original short videos now feels more fully fleshed out, thanks to help from the Chiodo Brothers, a puppetry and special-effects studio that also created the marionette stars of Team America: World Police and the Claymation “Large Marge” sequence in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. But the visual sensibility remains elegantly simple, a watercolor painting rather than the pulsating primary-color-splashed canvas of most animated films.
From Marcel’s vantage point, the human world is too huge to fathom. When Dean takes him out on a car ride to go on an attempted search for his family, the frequently-carsick shell is dejected to learn that, as unnavigably big as their city is, it is only one of countless such places in the world. The internet, on the other hand, is an infinite space that can be explored from inside the nutshell of Marcel’s familiar surroundings. With Dean’s help, Marcel starts searching the web for evidence about where his extended clan might have landed. This hunt is both amplified and made more difficult by the shell’s newfound internet notoriety. Dean’s videos starring him have gone viral, just as the real-life Marcel did back in 2010, and the impact this worldwide exposure has on his and his Nana’s life is explored in a middle section that comments, thoughtfully and without snark, on the less savory aspects of social-media fame.
The last third of the movie heads into deeper and sadder waters. Dean, who as the behind-the-camera presence is seldom seen in full face, eventually reveals he is recovering from a painful breakup, while Marcel remains stuck in mourning for his lost family, and Nana Connie confronts the realities of growing old. But by the end—which, without spoiling anything, finds Marcel in a contemplative moment of solitude after a giddy household-object hoedown—Marcel the Shell with Shoes On struck me as an animated film like no other I can recall. It’s a story about the difficulty and necessity of making yourself vulnerable that is itself the product of an unusually intimate artistic collaboration, literally a couple’s shared in-joke that took on a life of its—or his—own.
I don’t mean to make too much of Slate and Fleischer-Camp’s personal history. Plenty of art-making couples have split up while continuing to work together, and what is up on the screen would be worth watching even if the creators had never met outside a Zoom writers’ room. But hearing the anxious yet undaunted Marcel express his desire not just to survive but to find a way to move forward with joy, I wanted to assure his creators: Don’t worry, he has.