A Tale of a Mollusk
In 2010, Dean Fleischer-Camp first posted the first short video introducing Marcel to the world on YouTube. Marcel has one googly eye in his tennis shoes as a shell; we call him a mollusk. Fleischer-Camp captures it in mockumentary fashion, observing Marcel in his habitat and including observations of his adorable little one. When two short films in 2011 and 2014 follow, we can watch all three in less than 12 minutes.
Despite his small size, Fleischer-Camp amplified Marcel’s subtle philosophy of looking at the bigger picture with a hint of melancholy. With feature films and storybooks to match, it accuses creators of milking the viral phenomenon for all it’s worth. However, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On isn’t like a cheap commercial project with a matching product tie-in. We can find plush dolls that look like characters melting into strange lumps apart from that.
The filmmakers have used their runtime while deepening the characters. Instead, they build on their optimistic but pure perspective. It’s more than a joke about Marcel’s stature but about worldview. Essentially, the film is an expansion of the 2010 short film Fleischer-Camp made with Jenny Slate. They spawned two children’s books and a series of short films in their own right.
Live-action Stop-motion Animated Film
With Fleischer-Camp serving as a documentary, the mix of stop-motion animated film and live-action gives him a stark truth. We forget that Marcel and his miniature creation world do not exist. In ancient times, he lived in a “community” discovered in the home of a couple who was always fighting. The members have split up, and the people use their homes as Airbnb. Except for one, all of Marcel’s colleagues have disappeared and left after an unfortunate sock drawer incident.
At home, he now lives alone with his grandmother, Nana Connie, who is also very old. Her single eye closed in age and was waiting for the passage of time. The film could be a titular character acting as a feature-length extension of the short film. The wholesome or cute aesthetic of anime and Japanese culture involves compact, innocent, and small cartoon animals. If we were to equate it with that, it exuded a child-like charm and wonder.
However, Marcel goes beyond the stop-motion animated exterior to offer an adorable perspective. Such culture squeezes the cuteness out of coy and childish behavior. Granted to be sure, Marcel is a bit naive. Except, he wants to know all about the world.
Longing for Connection
Marcel has fearless yet innocent wisdom. In one scene, the film involves him realizing what is outside his house. A house in suburban Los Angeles makes Marcel learn that the world is far more important than he ever knew. The city’s vast network, thus, makes him do his search for his family. However, it will be much more difficult. With his husky little voice, he wasn’t someone who would let an impossible measure of odds get the better of him.
It makes him more than just a source of humor. When the hero of the mockumentary is a tiny mollusk shell with two legs and one eye, a gentle delight is not necessarily a sheer one. Marcel’s highly philosophical outlook on life goes far beyond his little universe. Undeniably, the film perfectly suits kids but resonates more with adults. Instead, Marcel provides many dipsy-doodle observations about the longing for connection.
With his charming but whispering voice, he also presents how sadness can give way to unexpected joy. In one scene, he shows us how he uses a piece of curly pasta as a makeshift French horn.
Marcel also alleviates his loneliness by adopting a pet, even though it is just a string piece that links threads together. However, he gives us an overview of how to get through the good and bad days. Nick Paley, Slate, and Fleischer-Camp wrote the screenplay; it incorporates favorite lines from the shorts into Marcel the Shell. They use what we have seen as a metal vanity. Every documentary film invariably shows the creation itself, as if the director’s footage becomes part of the story.
He will upload his conversation with Marcel to the internet after recording. Suddenly, Marcel becomes a sensation but soon realizes that internet fame doesn’t mean he has millions of friends who support him and will help him find his family. Vice versa, he observed that they were spectators; they were not “the community.” True to his character, it’s refreshing when the filmmakers haven’t become the accomplices of the YouTube viewers who made Marcel go viral.
Despite the plot being sleek yet simple as a feather, Marcel’s world rocks when 60 Minutes (Marcel’s favorite show) asks him and Nana Connie to be guests. On the other hand, he is worried about Nana Connie, whose health is declining, and will become depressed by the arrival of the television crew.
Life Imitating Art
Therefore, Marcel had to persuade Nana to take advantage of every good opportunity offered when she was young. However, it’s not a bittersweet element of the film. In reality, Slate and Fleischer-Camp were married. Slate then first conceived the character Marcel and improvised on a whim. The two split up in 2016, becoming a reality that made one of the film’s threads. It becomes a relief when the feeling of dislocation we can feel when we meet someone we love or know is no longer a part of everyday life.
If not, it’s neither disappointing nor surprising when the film deals so gently with the realities of loss and death. However, its quiet delicacy is spacious and comes in a small outer frame. In one scene, Marcel is walking around inside a tennis ball. He pulled a hair in place of a dog. Marcel walked on the wall by dipping his shoes into the honey. With a high cuteness factor, Marcel’s perspective is so bright, and said that he likes himself without pretensions.
However, the story becomes one of optimism after the loss. Fleischer-Camp stars as Dean, taking on an off-screen filmmaker who walks into an Airbnb to find Marcel.
Marcel recounted that he had lived in a community of 20 or more people. At the house, Marcel lives with an elderly Nana. They try to be invisible every time a new tenant stays over. They would also bond Dean up to become a subject in his filmmaking. Indeed, Marcel was lonely. However, he tries not to be lonely and has created a comfortable environment for himself and his grandmother.
Marcel always finds ways to maintain a steady supply of food. For example, he uses rope setups and clever blenders shaking the apricot trees outside. Otherwise, Dean, who’s living temporarily at home after the breakup of his relationship, sees what is exceptional about Marcel, who looks small. The way Marcel introduces himself straightforwardly explains that his body is a shell but also has a face.
Marcel the Shell has moments of sentimentality and is very funny. Despite that, the film is never unabashedly fun or sweet. There is a tinge of sadness beneath the surface. The themes of the importance of family and home can be typical of PG-rated images. However, the unexpectedly powerful scenes about cherishing alone time, remembering the dead, or caring for a parent make it quirky.
Emphasizing Marcel’s Compositions
When remembering such things, Marcel becomes an unlikely character for any age. On the other hand, Marcel is a character with a subtle sense of humor. He has a multidimensional personality with general friendliness, making him feel like more than just a cute gimmick. In essence, he is a resonant yet heartwarming character. Meanwhile, it keeps things charming and unreal effortlessly.
No one ever asked how Marcel spoke. It also doesn’t talk about his society or the origins of these tiny creatures. Marcel the Shell contains a touch of inner complexity. Just as Marcel enjoyed the attention of social media before finding it empty, he longed for solitude after being reunited with his family. By exploring it, Fleischer-Camp captures the world by emphasizing Marcel’s isolation and size, dwarfed in wide shots that highlight his small presence in an ordinary home.
Whether going through the frame into miniature compositions, the film uses Marcel’s size for endless visual jokes.
- Nell, M. (2022). Charming Enthusiasm and Inherent Heartbreak: Dean Fleischer Camp on Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Roger Ebert.
- Slate, J., & Fleischer-Camp, D. (2011). Marcel the shell with shoes on: Things about me (Vol. 1). Penguin.