If a heartfelt summer comedy feels like something that the doctor ordered, then a healthy dose of “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” will fill the bill.
The meticulously crafted mockumentary, seven years in the making, uses both stop motion and live action to tell the story of Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate). He’s partially a shell, he explains, but also has shoes and a face — really just a googly eye and a mouth — and a confidence that belies his small stature.
“I like myself, and I have a lot of other great qualities as well,” he explains in a video that ends up going viral on YouTube.
A24 presents a film directed by Dean Fleischer Camp and written by Fleischer Camp, Jenny Slate and Nick Paley. Rated PG (for some suggestive material and thematic elements). Running time: 90 minutes. Opens Thursday at AMC River East and Friday at the Music Box Theatre.
Marcel’s documentarian, Dean Fleischer Camp — who is also the co-creator of the original series and the director of this film — is a long-term guest at the Los Angeles home where Marcel and his grandmother, Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), are squatting.
And Dean’s interest in his subject goes beyond a fascination with a 1-inch anthropomorphic shell who sleeps between two slices of white bread in his “breadroom” (get it?) and has ingenious ideas about how to use everyday household items to make his life as a shell easier.
Turns out, both Dean and Marcel are learning how to put one shoe after the other after experiencing loss.
Like the real-life “Marcel the Shell” short films, Dean’s YouTube clips of Marcel’s life go viral in “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.”
The original video “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” which has 32 million views and counting, posted on YouTube on Oct. 16, 2010. Prior to this, it appeared on Vimeo on Aug. 16, 2010. Two follow-up shorts, a children’s book and more than a decade later, the feature film expands on the shell’s story with a colorful tale of a creature who has learned how to not just survive but thrive after loss.
In the feature film adaptation, Dean meets Marcel and Nana Connie when he moves into an Airbnb after a breakup. The filmmaker starts documenting Marcel’s life, which consists of flitting around the house in a tennis ball, shaking loquats from a tree using a rope connected to an electric mixer and caring for his grandmother, who seems to be experiencing some memory loss.
Along the way, Dean finds out that Marcel and Nana Connie are the only remnants of a vibrant community that used to live sight unseen inside the home. Two years ago, their family (also shell-shaped) and neighbors (who come in all sorts of shapes, such as nuts, Cheeto puffs and spools of thread) were all stolen away after the couple who’d previously resided there had a blow-out fight. The boyfriend left with his belongings and unwittingly took most of the community with him as they had been hunkered down in his clothes drawer.
Dean’s mission becomes clear: It’s time to harness Marcel’s viral fame for good and try to find his family.
Marcel and Nana Connie’s idol, the journalist Lesley Stahl — yes, the one you see every week on “60 Minutes” — even gets involved when it becomes clear that social media users are more interested in taking selfies and filming TikToks at Marcel’s house than helping out.
Internet fame helps Marcel and Nana Connie understand that the world extends beyond their backyard: “It’s so big feeling,” Nana Connie says. But it doesn’t take long for the shells to find out that, sometimes, online engagement doesn’t equate to real-life change.
In other words, “It’s an audience. It’s not a community” — which is a valid, jaded sentiment, though perhaps not one that fits with the flow of the generally upbeat film.
“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” works best when it’s unexpectedly laugh-out-loud funny due to Marcel’s naivete. Like “Toy Story” or “A Bug’s Life,” “Marcel the Shell” inspires you to look more closely at the non-sentient items or creatures in your life and let your imagination craft colorful worlds for them.
There are plenty of “aw”-worthy moments throughout, but they’re heartfelt, not just the result of a cuteness overload. Marcel doesn’t come across as the face of a lucrative franchise.
He’s not a Minion or a Porg or a similar animated character whose merchandise racks up billions of dollars — he’s just Marcel.
And Marcel’s story is about going outside of your comfort zone, allowing a family member to age with dignity and picking yourself up after a devastating loss. It’s about making the most of what life hands you.