The story goes that at a wedding, then-couple Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate were sharing a hotel room with two other people and Slate, feeling a bit cramped, came up with a tiny little voice to reflect her claustrophobia. Camp had promised a friend to create a short film for a comedy show and, recalling Slate’s voice, bought a snail shell, googley eye, and shoes from a knock-off Polly Pocket set. Together, the director and comedienne began improvising and created Marcel the Shell.
From there, a YouTube sensation was born. Audiences loved Marcel’s innocence and matter-of-fact sincerity — he was a sweet little dude who could melt even the most hardened heart. Camp and Slate released two more short films, received with great acclaim, and wrote a New York Times bestseller. Now Marcel is getting the feature film treatment in an extraordinary family movie that hits all the right notes.
Marcel (voiced once more by Slate) lives with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) and their pet lint, Alan, in a home being used as an Airbnb. While some guests notice the shells and many ignore them, when documentary filmmaker Dean (Camp) moves in, he takes an interest in the small family and starts filming them.
In a film that could begin and end simply being adorable, Camp and Slate take big swings. When Dean uploads some of his footage to YouTube, Marcel becomes a hit and soon enough, fans and influencers find the Airbnb. They become intrusive and invade the privacy of Marcel for no reason other than views and likes. So not only do Camp and Slate take on the hollowness of social media, they also tackle the idea of children finding safe spaces while confronting loss and sudden separation.
Early on in the film we learn that there used to be a larger community of shells, including Marcel and Connie’s family, living in the house. The original owners were a couple, Larissa (Rosa Salazar) and Mark (Thomas Mann), who fought incessantly. So much so that the small inhabitants of the home devised a plan that, whenever the fighting began, they would all meet in the sock drawer of the bedroom dresser to ensure each other’s safety and comfort. One evening, in the midst of yet another terrible fight, Mark hastily empties the contents of the sock drawer into his suitcase and leaves the house for good, taking the shell community with him — except for Marcel and Connie.
Although initially put off by the attention, Marcel realizes that this may be the perfect opportunity for him to track down his long-lost shell family. And when the story catches the eye of producers at CBS’ 60 Minutes, Marcel, with the help of Dean, sets off in the hopes of reuniting with his parents and friends.
Using a mix of live action, stop-motion, and CGI, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is filmed in the mockumentary style format made famous by The Office. Camp, who is typically seated in the director’s chair behind the camera in his projects, is a complete natural conversing with Marcel and even appears on camera a few times. And of course, the ever illustrious Rossellini is spectacular, lending a warmth and tenderness to Nanna Connie that complements both Marcel and Dean very well.
Now for Slate. Every so often a voice performance is so strong, so moving, and so deserving of acclaim, it will reignite the discussion about why they aren’t awarded and recognized more readily. Slate’s turn as Marcel should do just this.
The success of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is due in large part to the balance the film strikes. It never gets too cute or too twee that the characters or story become cloying. And while Camp’s direction and performance has a lot to do with achieving this, Slate’s vocal work is the biggest reason it works. There’s a gentleness in her tone blended with an assertiveness that gives Marcel a texture we can feel. It should also be mentioned that the quick banter and chemistry between Camp and Slate also goes a long way in making this quirky indie pop.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is one of those magical films that hits multiple demographics with ease. Children will absolutely delight in the whimsy and endearing nature of both Marcel and Connie, and adults of all stripes will find joy in equal measures.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On opens in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver theatres on July 1.