“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is the story of Marcel, an anthropomorphic seashell who does in fact wear shoes.
The film is an extension of a web series, unseen by me, and is quirky and imaginative. It’s innocently funny and deeply emotional in a way that reveals meaningful truth in its material. With “Marcel,” the surface betrays a sharp commentary about modern culture and the illusion created by social media. It’s nothing short of a wonder.
Dean is a documentary filmmaker, played by Dean Fleischer-Camp (who also directed the film and co-created the character), who moves into an Airbnb after a break-up. He learns Marcel is also sharing the living space.
Since the movie is a fantasy, Dean is neither horrified nor shocked. He simply finds delight in his squeakily-pitched roommate. As voiced by comedian/co-creator Jenny Slate, you might detect Babe the pig in tone and inflection.
We learn Marcel is dealing with big emotions, coming from a loss just like Dean. It seems the Airbnb once housed a couple who also broke up. When they split, Marcel’s fellow seashells were packed up.
It should be noted Fleischer-Camp and Slate were together when they created the web series and now they aren’t. While they still made the movie together, it shows heartbreak punctuates much of this story.
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The only one remaining with Marcel is the wise and weary Connie, voiced by Isabella Rossellini, who gives out life lessons. Dean gets the idea to film Marcel’s plight and post it online in hopes someone out there can bring everyone back together.
The video is uploaded and, while popular, the results are not as hoped. People leave comments with lots of exclamation marks. They make fan videos. The house is doxxed.
Little Marcel thought he would find a new community of friends. But, as he perceptively notes later, the Internet is not a community, but an audience. Marcel has merely become content and the online reaction is a performance; an act of self-expression that matters as much as what is being commented upon.
This sentiment in “Marcel” reveals a deep message about online toxicity. Philosophically, social media should be a place where problems are solved and the world comes together. Like connecting adorable, talking seashells with one another.
Yet in practice, social media reveals humans are more likely to connect with outrageousness or conflict. Drama draws more engagement. Poor Marcel, who barely conceives of a life outside his house, feels dismayed by the crush of feigned devotion and dangerous obsession he finds online.
Interesting that a film based on a popular web series has so much to say about the dangers of seeking connection online. But our world has shifted to social media at a level most people could not have fathomed past a decade ago. Filmmakers are becoming more likely to ponder this.
“Vengeance,” which came out last weekend, is a whole movie about how nefarious manipulators have co-opted the Internet and monetized the division in modern American life. That movie isn’t good, but the line about how “most of us see the world destroying itself and choose to laugh about it in the corner of a party” has stuck with me.
Unlike that movie, “Marcel” dramatizes its themes rather than makes them the subject of overly-long monologues. I don’t mean to totally trash “Vengeance,” which is a film with lots of ideas that just don’t get fully cooked. “Marcel” avoids such problems, proving a film full of hopeful optimism can also contain some interesting ideas as well.
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Consciously or not, the film portrays mainstream-media gatekeepers as Marcel’s saviors. “60 Minutes” becomes interested in the little seashell’s story. Connie and Marcel, major Lesley Stahl stans, are reluctant after what they’ve seen happen when they became Internet sensations. They relent and Stahl’s investigation sets up what everyone hopes is a happy ending.
The film isn’t just memorable for its clever use of stop-motion animation or its smartly-realized observations. I, for one, will never look at the battery image on my cell phone without thinking about this movie ever again. “Marcel” also tells an emotional story about the fear of change. To, forgive me, emerge out of one’s shell to face the world no matter how scary or imposing it may be. This is a hero’s journey, like many great epic tales before.
Now the packaging is smaller. Marcel works as a character, not simply because of Slate’s great vocal work or the beauty of the script, but because there is real craft put into creating him.
I recall Roger Ebert’s observation that non-humans in movies only work if the audience can connect with their eyes. For they are the portal to any creature’s soul. Marcel is given very expressive eyes, and we do see into the fears and dreams of this funny little creature. We like what we see and want to take the journey with him.
I feel compelled to note this is the second “artsy” movie I’ve seen this year to carry powerful weight and pack emotional punches while maintaining a PG rating. The other was “Petite Maman,” which also played at Ragtag Cinema, but you can now stream and which sits atop my favorite films of 2022.
That poses the question as to whether “Marcel” is good for kids. There’s probably enough visual appeal to keep a younger audience entertained. I mean, what kid wouldn’t love a big-eyed seashell talking the about perils of modern life?
“Marcel” opens at Ragtag Cinema Friday.
In real life, James Owen is a lawyer and executive director of energy policy group Renew Missouri. He created/wrote for Filmsnobs.com from 2001-2007 before an extended stint as an on-air film critic for KY3, the NBC affiliate in Springfield. He was named a Top 20 Artist under the Age of 30 by The Kansas City Star when he was much younger than he is now.