10/10 Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes is all it takes.
After his marriage dissolves, documentarian Dean Fleischer Camp (himself. Camp also writes, directs, edits and produces) moves into an Airbnb, but discovers it is already inhabited by Marcel (Jenny Slate, who also writes and produces), a conscious shell with shoes on. Marcel was part of a collection of shells belonging to a family that used to live in the house, but they were separated, and he now spends his time in relative isolation doing chores around his massive environment taking care of Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini), his only remaining relative who is showing early signs of dementia. Dean makes a Youtube documentary about Marcel, becoming an internet sensation.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is the feature-length culmination of several stop-motion shorts – Slate and Camp have been working on these characters for 12 years. The story goes that, both early in their careers when they were sharing a hotel room at a wedding with five other people to save money, Slate started speaking in a tiny voice, and Marcel came to life on YouTube 48 hours later.
That history is baked into Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Dean first arrives on the scene because of his need to save money on living space as a young, newly single professional, and the scripts from their first videos are written into the early part of the film with fresh photography. Dean publishes these first videos in the narrative, leading to a fame response that becomes their primary obstacle – they don’t draw enough attention to become rich and powerful, only enough to turn their house into a social media hotspot, bringing hundreds of mostly disinterested onlookers who aren’t careful around the one-inch-tall shell.
The new photography is absolutely gorgeous. The film is breathtakingly beautiful to look at. Cinematographer Bianca Cline and production designer Liz Toonkel bring us an empty suburban home in glowing sunlight, shocking whites and powerful greens through the window complementing the less colorful interiors. It is an abandoned and palpably sad home, the furniture of the prior owners still in place – it must have stood empty for several months passing from the couple’s shared ownership to a bank – warm and inviting, but with the creeping edges of dust just beginning to settle. It is a home that is just beginning to be haunted, or one already haunted whose ghost will transition any day now from grief to anger.
Marcel lives in, quite literally, the ecological disaster of a failed relationship. Much of the early part of the film is spent with him describing his way of life to Dean, how his family of shells lived off the couple and how he and Connie have adjusted to their absence. They work the house, collecting dew and fruit from the orchard that towers above them and domesticating pollinating insects in the first-floor hanging planters, without either a family bringing in fresh produce or other shells to help them.
The house is their entire world, and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’s greatest victory is turning it into an ecosystem. Many of the film’s most memorable shots are of a trio of jumping spiders who live themselves off of Marcel’s byproducts, the ecosystem still extending beyond the main provider.
Neither Dean in-narrative nor the production for Marcel the Shell with Shoes On seems to have sprung for specialized macro lenses, and the camera frequently struggles to focus on its tiny subjects. Marcel’s tiny body in a gigantic world is present as a barrier just to documenting him because even standard-issue equipment doesn’t really work with a subject that small, but Dean picks up tons of Marcel-sized details to flesh out the world. As he explains exactly how much bigger the world around them is, the magnitude of difficulty in searching for Marcel’s lost family, the film brings a sense of humbling scale to viewers as well.
This minor-yet-thorough of a shift in perspective is all it takes to make Marcel’s emotional beats so forceful. Despite what should be a predictable story, I find myself moved by basic but powerful expressions of grief and optimism filtered through Marcel’s familiar world made alien by the photography. This is the rare film that can take viewers to a new place and force us to reexamine our own place in Marcel’s world. Seeing it will genuinely improve your life, and you should go at once.