Marcel (the Shell (with Shoes On)) found his way to me during sophomore year of college, back when being online didn’t feel like such a chore.
I think it was around 2011. My friend pulled up this video featuring a stop-motion shell equipped with one large googly eye and, naturally, shoes. We watched the video, commented on how many people had seen it, and wrote it off. But throughout the rest of that spring–which turned out to be one hell of a terrible semester–I kept going back to it. Life sucked in that specific way that life is terrible for a 20-year-old, and as it turned out, the remedy was always more shell. So on nights where I’d decided to simply blow off homework, I’d dive into YouTube, eat Domino’s pizza and drink whiskey from a plastic bottle, and find my way, eventually, to Marcel.
I feel like over the years people have told me that’s what Marcel became for them, too: a palm-sized, quirky salve whose debut marked this peculiar crux of the internet’s history before the World Wide Web felt so perpetually toxic.
The original short film-turned-YouTube video from Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate amassed over 32 million views–a bona fide viral video when that kind of thing was still impressive. It spawned two short sequels, and then eventually, we didn’t hear from Marcel anymore. Twelve years went by. 4chan devolved into 8chan (yikes) and TikTok replaced Vine. Social media became an opinion cesspool and the likes of Marcel didn’t seem to have much of a place in the culture anymore, relegated to wherever Charlie the Unicorn and Philosoraptor exist.
Then, in the chaos of 2022, A24 announced that it would be releasing a feature-length mockumentary titled Marcel the Shell with Shoes On from Fleischer-Camp. For the die-hard fans, that was terrible news because there’s a certain cringe that often comes along with pulling the past into the present (see: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Will & Grace, Fear Factor’s Joe Rogan). If anyone should avoid 2022, it’s the perpetually earnest and optimistic Marcel the Shell.
The original Marcel the Shell video appeared online at a time that felt like a fork in the road. Marcel is the road we did not travel. We opted instead for something harsher and vitriolic. We lost the good faith that Marcel encapsulated.
In a bittersweet twist, Marcel the Shell, as we know him, does not come back. Or rather, it’s not all we see of him. Instead of recreating the past, the film recognizes that no matter which viral fame you’ve achieved–the pure one of 2010 or the infamous one of 2022–there’s a life that’s happening on the other side of the screen.
In the 10 years or so since we last saw Marcel, we discover that the two people whose house he lives in have since separated (a presumed nod to the 2016 divorce between Fleischer-Camp and Slate, both of whom, excitedly, returned for the film). In the wake of their departure, Marcel’s shell family has disappeared as well, except for his Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini).
In the film’s earlier scenes, we get callbacks and quotables from the original short film, but then the movie pivots. Nana Connie has what appears to be signs of dementia. On good days, she gets a bit lost. On bad ones, she gets hurt. Marcel, still squeaky and youthful, has fallen into the role of caregiver. She is insistent that he continues to live his life and find his missing family; he’s determined to stick by her side.
In the excitement of gaining internet fame, Marcel and Fleischer-Camp (who cameos in the film as the documentarian) go on a day-long search for Marcel’s family, but when they return, Marcel finds that all the fans who were inspired to help him are mostly interested in grabbing a selfie in front of the house. Dancing on TikTok. Posting something online as a braggy souvenir from when they doxxed Marcel. Worse, inside the house, the commotion has caused Nana Connie to fall and injure herself.
The short of it is that Marcel’s life isn’t quite as easy as it once looked online either. Like a lot of us, we look incredible via what we choose to share online. But when Marcel–and again, I’d like to recognize that we’re discussing a shell with a googly eye–is offered to us over the course of 98 minutes, life isn’t easy as it seemed to be in those three minute clips.
The film gets at the struggle that comes with grief, but more importantly, how easy it is to get trapped in the incompatible online version of ourselves. At one point in the film, Marcel questions Fleischer-Camp for not sharing any personal details about his life, saying, “You can connect with people when you’re not filming them.”
The moment underlines the entirety of the film–regardless of viral fame or the personas we build online, there’s always more going on than the internet suggests. And maybe the reason we lie about it all is because it feels like that’s our own escape. Or that we can create something better than what we’re living. Like Fleischer-Camp, it’s easier to post about what we’re seeing than it is to get into what plagues our day to day. But Marcel the Shell pushes past that. Marcel of 2010 showed us how pure life can be on the Internet. Marcel of 2022 shows us how pure it can be when you log off.
For those who’ve seen the film, you know that the whole story culminates in an interview with the fearless Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes–an offer Marcel initially declines for fear of drawing more attention to himself and endangering Nana Connie. Frustrated at Marcel for turning it down and refusing to accept the opportunity in front of him, she feigns a sudden reversal in health so that Marcel will do the interview. As he and Fleischer-Camp sit before Stahl and do their interview, Nana Connie sits in the window sill, recites “The Trees,” a poem by Philip Larkin, and then when the film cuts back, she is gone.
As Marcel tries to make sense of her death a few scenes later, he finds himself drawn to a cracked window. He turns to the camera and explains that he comes there to speak to Nana Connie. The air moving through the crack hits his shell and makes a dull whistle, and he says with a smile, “Suddenly we’re one large instrument.”
You’d think, 12 years into the future and squarely in my thirties, this wouldn’t hit me as hard as it might have in my plastic-bottled whiskey drinking days, but I was in the back of the theater, releasing those little mini breaths you run into when you’re trying not to emotionally explode in public. Between sniffs, I heard the fully adult man beside me choking back the same breaths. When the lights came up, I laughed and said, “I’m glad you were the one sitting beside me because I know that you got it,” and he said, “I thought the same thing about you, too.”
I’m not entirely sure what I meant by that–maybe that we were two grown men crying at a stop motion shell from the internet. Or that in the era of cynicism and skepticism, we allowed ourselves to cry at this earnest message about grief and life. I suspect it’s probably more in line with why I finally decided I was crying. A special piece of my life found a way to circle back to me a decade later. Not to wax nostalgic about the past but to find me where I needed it, at the same place I was.
And yeah, none of this would have come to be had Marcel not been extremely online. But the best part of Marcel’s story–the purest piece that I’ll carry with me–happened when he logged off.