A Hero for Our Age

Meet Marcel, the Shell with Shoes On. He's a shell with shoes on. He's also the star of one of the year's most miraculous movies.

An image of Marcel, the Shell with Shoes On, perched on the needle of a record player.

Hi, everyone! And I do mean everyone: This edition of Shiny Things is going out to all subscribers, free and paid. I’m trying to find an approach that makes everybody happy, rolling out a midweekly newsletter for everyone to enjoy while still offering paid subscribers the focus the longer-form writing I promised them from the jump. If you like this, you’ll like that even more. I promise.

But you know what else you’ll like? Marcel, The Shell with Shoes On, a marvelous new motion picture from Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate. I’ve long been an admirer of both of these very talented weirdoes, and the accidental folk hero they created, and now they’ve taken that strange little viral character and built an entire movie around him.

Originally introduced to the world in a trio of YouTube videos Fleischer-Camp animated around his vocal improvisations with Slate, Marcel is a sentient seashell with the voice and perspective of an enthusiastic little boy. He’s a complete innocent and an irrepressible optimist: It is clearly very hard to be Marcel, a tiny weird little thing in a world built for people and their pets, but Marcel is having a great time anyway.

The Marcel movie changes things up a little, introducing us to Marcel as the subject of a documentary being made by “Dean”, a heartsick filmmaker who’s discovered the little guy living in the house he rented on Airbnb. Dean is understandably fascinated by Marcel, who’s rigged all sorts of conveniences within the house so he and his beloved Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini, which makes a magical kind of sense) can make do now that it’s just the two of them. As Marcel and Dean become friends, we understand that Marcel is a little heartsick himself: He and Nana Connie used to be part of a larger community, until the others disappeared one night. Now it’s just the two of them, and it’s getting harder for Marcel to take care of Nana Connie on his own – not that he’d ever say so, of course. It’d be great to find out where everybody else went; Marcel just has no idea how to do that.

Marcel, the Shell with Shoes On, stands with his Nana Connie in their garden.

When Dean posts his first video of Marcel on YouTube, it becomes an instant sensation, its subject’s gentle heart and inarguable cuteness connecting with millions of fans, who are quick to offer help in the search for Marcel’s lost community – which is the first sign that the Marcel movie has more on its mind than just extending the bit to feature length. Fleischer-Camp and Slate aren’t interested in the stop-motion equivalent of expanding a movie pitch into an eight-part limited series, just padding the thing out until they hit the desired running time; they have a very specific idea of what they want to accomplish with this version of Marcel the Shell, and they do it with no small measure of grace.

I always end up trying to protect the stories of the movies I love, and if you’ve seen the Marcel trailer you already know a lot more than you ought to. Marcel, The Shell with Shoes On is best seen cold, with no idea what’s coming from one moment to the next. All you need to know is that the essential charm of the character comes through loud and clear, and that the specific and distinct geniuses of his creators might never find a better showcase.

Marcel and "Dean"

Fleischer-Camp’s skills as a filmmaker are considerable: His hour-long Fraud, which screened at Hot Docs back in 2016, is an ingenious riff on the ethics of documentary editing, recutting hours of home-video footage Fleischer-Camp found on YouTube to implicate an entirely ordinary family in all manner of sordid activity. (In a way, Marcel’s insertion of stop-motion characters into existing live-action spaces is a similarly deconstructive act ... though things work out a lot better for everyone in this project.)

And I’ve long admired Slate’s wonderfully loopy take on the world, which we’ve glimpsed in he various performances, in her wonderful book Little Weirds, and in countless interviews. (I’ll just do my usual flex here and remind you all that I was lucky enough to attend her LARGO show in 2012, shortly after the whole Saturday Night Live thing, where she acknowledged her crushing stage fright and basically opened her entire heart to the thirty or so people who’d come to see her, so I will never not be in the tank for her.)

But there’s something about the persona of Marcel that removes all restraint; she’s more alert, more playful and more cutting in character, using Marcel’s innocence as license to push just a little harder. When Marcel asks Dean about the lady next to him in his YouTube photo – who she is, where she’s gone, why he never talks about her – that’s Slate and Fleischer-Camp coming right to the edge of addressing their own romance, marriage and breakup. It’s not a gimmick or a dramatic device, but a window into the world they’ve created here – a world where we’re told how important it is to cherish people while they’re with us, and how everything seems a little dustier and more quiet when they’re gone.

There’s a moment, early in the movie, when the ever-upbeat Marcel instinctively tries to soften the worst moment of his life by noting that it took place on a pretty nice day, and thinking “if I was someone else, I’d probably be having a really good time right now.” That’s the kind of movie Jenny and Dean have made. It’s acutely attuned to how beautiful the world is, even at its most overwhelming, and the comfort we can take in one another when 60 Minutes comes on.

Marcel, the Shell with Shoes On is now playing in the US and opens in Toronto and Vancouver today. I’ll be introducing the 7:30 pm screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox tomorrow (Friday July 1st), and hosting a Q&A with Dean Fleischer-Camp after the show. I’m told there may also be stickers. Tickets are available right here.

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