To know Marcel is to love Marcel, and this hasn’t changed since 2010. After three beloved viral YouTube videos One - 2010, Two - 2011, and Three - 2014, Marcel has finally made it to the big screen with Dean Fleischer-Camp’s directorial debut. Fleischer-Camp, alongside co-creator, co-writer, co-producer, and star, Jenny Slate, mined some of their original videos and added more story, more context, and more heart to construct the film that has been tapping into waterworks everywhere: Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
If you’re familiar with Marcel, you know he’s a shell because you can tell by his body, but he also has shoes…and a face: and he likes that about himself. The Marcel in the YouTube videos is full of whimsical quips and observations about life that are insightful and infinitely quotable, and he easily appears to have a rich inner life. But what the film brings to the table is the question of who Marcel is in the context of the larger world. Where does Marcel live? Who’s his family? And who is this mystery voice recording Marcel’s day-to-day? The film answers all of these questions and more in its concise 90-minute runtime, and beautifully so, but where it surprises you is its layered commentary, and the ability to be enjoyable whether you see the layers or not. On the surface, Marcel is about appreciating the ongoing beauty and intricacies of life while enduring the pains of loss and grief. But existing underneath that surface (which is a very, very funny surface, I should add) are lessons on all kinds of topics ranging from divorce to online toxicity. These different layers enrich the film as a whole, but their recognition isn’t vital to enjoying the simplicity of its heartwarming message of love, community, and cherishing the beauty of everyday life. But if you’re looking to delve a little deeper into the histories of the filmmakers, Marcel has even more lessons to offer.
You quickly learn in the beginning of the film that Marcel lives in a home that was once owned by a couple that have since broken up and have chosen to rent the home out on AirBnB. This couple, Larissa and Mark, split up amidst a series of screaming matches which leads to the majority of Marcel’s community (i.e. family) being hastily packed up, unbeknownst to and by Mark, and driven away to a new home. The film picks up two years after Larissa and Mark have split up. Additionally, the film begins because the documentarian shooting the film, Dean Fleischer-Camp playing a version of himself, and his wife chose to divorce. Dean moves into the AirBnB as a temporary living situation while he searches for a new home/apartment. Coming off of the mostly light-hearted YouTube series, this is a lot of divorce/heartbreak for the genesis of Marcel’s story. But, as a film that can, and should, be used to help guide children through other heavy subjects such as fear and death, why not also face the reality that roughly 50% of children witness their parent's divorce? Both Larissa and Mark and Dean and his ex-wife were childless couples, but Marcel faces the repercussions of Mark and Larissa’s split just as much as any child would.
Because of Larissa and Mark’s explosive breakup and the resulting trauma, Marcel doesn’t have a frame of reference for a couple who have chosen to amicably uncouple until Dean moves in. As Marcel and Dean’s friendship strengthens, and Dean begins to share more of himself, Marcel comes to learn more of the adult world. Jenny Slate and the “real” Dean Fleischer-Camp themselves are a representation, by all appearances, of a healthy friendship nurtured after an amicable uncoupling. The pair married in 2012 and divorced in 2016. This return to Marcel the Shell as a creative project the two of them have shared in over the past decade is an excellent example of a healthy adult friendship. Even the Dean within the film chooses to comment on the dissolution of his (fictional, but probably real) relationship as mutual and healthy. This life lesson is obviously not the most important of the film, but it’s a hopeful one for fans of these two artists and an important one for both children and adults alike.
Speaking of Jenny Slate’s real-world experiences, Marcel’s experience with the internet isn’t overwhelmingly positive. It’s a rarity that films shine a discerning spotlight on the toxicity of social media, as most film and television these days use social media more as a tool or a language to further plot and tone instead of honestly critiquing it. Not to say that every creator has a responsibility to critique its placement in our world; social media and the internet are such a daily part of life that it would be odd not to see them utilized in at least some way in a modern-day project. But, every once in a while you’ll get a project like Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (or, even more critically, Burnham’s Inside) that truly takes social media to task and makes us take a good hard look at just how frequently and easily we misuse the power at our disposal.
Marcel isn’t concerned with going in as hard as Burnham’s works, but Marcel doesn’t shy away from passing judgment on the people who are only using him to further their own social status. When Dean posts a bit of his in-film documentary on YouTube, Marcel starts to gain popularity and stardom, so much so that when Marcel utilizes another YouTube video to gain intel on his missing family, Marcel’s “fans” go so far as to piece together the clues of where he lives to get that all-so-precious selfie in front of his house. Marcel makes note that the users all have something to say, but none of them are offering to help him in his cause. “This isn’t a community, it’s just an audience.” The online toxicity does come to a head at a certain point, but not before it elicits a physical response. This may be a bit of a stretch, but one can’t help but be reminded of Slate’s experience with social media on the receiving end of the critique regarding her relationship with Chris Evans. Bolstered by Evans’ “fans” who thought he could “do better,” Slate was thrown into a level of stardom that she had never experienced before, similarly to Marcel, eventually playing at least a small part in their breakup. Now, Marcel doesn’t experience anything quite like that, but the use of social media in the wrong hands does bring personal turmoil to Marcel, who is a perfectly wonderful little guy just trying to live his life the best way he knows how.
Marcel isn’t the only one affected by this social media storyline either; in fact, possibly more affected (and the biggest story change from the original YouTube videos to the film) is his Nana Connie. Nana Connie, named after Slate’s own grandmother, is a catalyst for change in Marcel through this period in his life just as much as Dean’s arrival is. Connie, voiced wonderfully by Isabella Rossellini, seems to be modeled after Rossellini herself. (Slate has said in interviews they knew Rossellini was a big ask, and that she signed onto the project only after receiving encouragement from her children. Thank you, Elettra and Roberto!) Rossellini is most well-known for her roles in Blue Velvet and Death Becomes Her, but if you’ve paid attention to her work from 2008 on, you may be familiar with her Green Porno series.
Green Porno is a comedic nature series of short films that aired on The Sundance Channel starting in 2008 (a number of them, along with subsequent series Seduce Me and Mammas, can now be found on, you guessed it, YouTube). The goal of the program, in Rossellini’s words, is to be both “entertaining and educational” while teaching viewers about animal sexual behavior and, in later series, animal mating and maternal rituals. If you’re keyed into the knowledge of Green Porno’s existence, learning about Nana Connie’s interests is even more endearing. Nana Connie loves to garden and take care of the insects in the garden. She has earned the insects’ trust, and in return, they help her with gardening tasks. Both Nana Connie and Isabella Rossellini are shining examples of Earth’s caretakers, teaching generations to come to follow in their footsteps by finding communion with their fellow organisms.
These layers found within Marcel the Shell with Shoes On that bridge from the fantasy of the film to the reality of the filmmakers (the possibility of healthy uncoupling, a nuanced dissection of the perks and pitfalls of social media, and the call to care for the planet) are just three examples of the extra lessons to be learned within the film, at your own choosing. Ultimately, Marcel is an animated triumph that acts as a heart-on-its-sleeve comedy, but the manner in which Marcel, both the short and the feature, came to exist is impossible to ignore. Fleischer-Camp and Slate made the original short and first showed it at one of Fleischer-Camp’s comedy shows (where Slate jokes only 12 were in attendance), and afterward, an audience member asked if he would put it online so she could show it to her mom. Fleischer-Camp agreed, and thanks to the beauty of which the internet is possible, people bonded over the magic of Marcel. In the end, Marcel’s search for community isn’t so different from our own, and Marcel is an excellent guide to help get us there.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.