Bigger isn’t always better.
By Will DiGravio Published on June 23, 2022
No good work goes unpunished these days. If it’s a hit in one medium, it will surely be adapted to another, recycled into the ground until even the most loyal of defenders absolutely hate it. In the 1980s, Mel Brooks criticized contemporary filmmaking by shouting, “Merchandising! Merchandising!” to the capitalist void Today the sentence can be more like: “Content! Content!”
Marcel the shell with shoes on isn’t bad enough to be the poster child for this phenomenon, but it does offer a lesson for discerning movie viewers: don’t be fooled by cute little creatures. No matter how much cute and charming innocence is baked on top of a movie, uneven, mostly directionless movies will still be just that. To look Marcel is to ask yourself repeatedly, “So what?”
Based on the viral YouTube videos created by Dean Fleischer Camp (who directs and plays himself in the film), Jenny Slate (who provides the voice of Marcel and wrote the script together with Fleisher-Camp and Nick Paley), and Elizabeth Holm† Marcel the shell with shoes on is a stop-motion mockumentary that functions as both an origin story and a coming-of-age story. The film begins with the disembodied voice of Fleisher-Camp, who discovers Marcel in his rented house. Immediately fascinated, he begins to document the life of the little shell.
Marcel lives with his grandmother, Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellinic† The two were separated from the rest of their extended family and shell community when the previous human inhabitants of their home had a loud argument and broke up. When such fights took place, the grenades had a policy of gathering in “the man’s” sock drawer for safety. When the man stormed out of the house in the aftermath of the fight, he quickly threw all his clothes, and thus the grenades, into a suitcase and never came back.
For anyone in need of a refresh, the original YouTube videos were no longer than a few minutes. In it, Marcel told the audience about his life, always showing how, like a little shell, he spent his day in imaginative ways. Often the videos made the viewer laugh at his expense. In the film, Marcel becomes more than the butt of the joke. He shares his thoughts on life, loneliness and family, including his role as a caretaker for Connie. The film’s most redeeming feature is its disarming sincerity. Marcel struggles with grief and loss. He struggles to feel a sense of self in this world. There are no reflexive ha-ha moments or worries about cringing. The film is committed to the bit.
The film acts as a hybrid prequel-sequel-retelling of the original videos. Marcel goes viral on YouTube, reenacting real events. The attention becomes both a blessing and a curse as adoring fans begin to overwhelm the house, threatening his and Connie’s safety. But the public eye also gives him the opportunity to search for his family. The shells, it turns out, were big fans of 60 minutes journalist Leslie Stahlwho makes a cameo in the film and interviews Marcel as part of his quest.
Movie images of virality are in vogue. You know the drill: montages of YouTube and TikTok clips, broadcast news, and the protagonist struggling with their newfound fame. The platitudes of this trend abound in Marcel deSchell, but the clichéd ‘critique’ of virality that the film offers, if any, is particularly disappointing. In any case, the film feels more like an opportunistic reconciliation of the viral frenzy.
As both the actual and the fictional director, Fleischer-Camp seems unable to decide which role to play. Sometimes the movie takes on a fly-on-the-wall, truth cinema style. He leaves Marcel alone to wonder and sometimes he wanders off. Other times, Fleischer-Camp is an active participant. He talks to Marcel, gives him advice and even appears on the fictitious 60 minutes broadcast over the shell. This disjunction makes it difficult to know how to view Marcel. Is he an animal to study? Or a sentient being that needs help and guidance on its journey? As such, there are moments when the film dives into pity rather than genuine empathy, leaving it feeling cold.
Slate and Rossellini are both solid in their respective roles and the stop motion is a joy to watch. Fortunately, the filmmakers didn’t take the CGI route. although Marcel the Shell: The Animated Series feels inevitable, like the Brooksian calls for merchandise that is sure to follow. Maybe Marcel will be Baby Yoda’s A24 equivalent.
The film confuses backstory with depth and affect with empathy. It relies too much on sentimentality and on the hope that charm will overwhelm the cookie cutter template on which they unceremoniously impose the story of a cute little creature. A talking stop-motion shell with shoes is a great YouTube shtick. It doesn’t make it into a feature film, however.
Marcel the shell with shoes on debuts in theaters on June 24, 2022
Related topics: Marcel the shell with shoes on
Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist who has been a contributor to Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio†