How can a film as disarmingly simple as this inspire deep feelings about loss, connection, and the meaning of family? I’m not sure I have the answer; all I know is that I was fighting back tears at the end of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. My daughter Jessie got to see the movie at the Telluride Film Festival last year and has been a proud prosthelytizer ever since.
I wouldn’t want to burden this charming film with descriptors like “existential” but it’s not misapplied here. At a time when so many of us are feeling disoriented—or disconnected—a movie like this is especially welcome.
Marcel was created by comedic actor and filmmaker Jenny Slate and her then-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp in 2010. Their unpretentious little short went viral on YouTube and demanded several sequels as well as a pair of best-selling books. Now Marcel is back in his first feature-length film, which reunites Slate and Camp; they share story and screenplay credit with editor Nick Paley and producer Elisabeth Holm.
For the uninitiated, Marcel is a fragment of a sea shell who sports one googly eye and wears sneakers. He has an endearing, high-pitched voice and seems both guileless and highly vulnerable. He is one inch tall. He and his grandmother Nana (a larger version of Marcel voiced by the irresistible Isabella Rossellini) live alone in a human house where they’ve tried to make peace with their environment in a variety of clever ways.
Their interpretation of the place they live and determining the passage of time are two of the concepts these diminutive characters explore, with the help of a human friend named Dean (played by the director). Dean lives in the house, which he shared with a wife until their loud arguments led to her departure.
Marcel and Nana are animated, you may be sure, and what seems like spontaneous documentary-style footage of them living their daily lives and submitting to an interview has been executed with great skill and care. The apparent goal was to make everything onscreen seem real and seamless, which is exactly what Camp and his colleagues have done.
It’s not surprising to see two of the Chiodo brothers, Stephen and Edward, credited as Supervising Animation Director and Animation Producer, respectively. Their roots in stop-motion animation run deep. In fact, one of the artists who works with them is Gene Warren III, whose family has been involved with visual effects for decades. (His grandfather earned an Oscar for George Pal’s The Time Machine and even worked on the original Puppetoons in the 1940s.
But the film is not about technique…far from it. It’s about loneliness, separation, kindness, community, and family. I am glad I saw it on a theater screen and urge you to do the same if you have the opportunity.