Marcel the Early Church Member

Sarah Welch-Larson

How funny would it be if shells had feelings and could talk?

That’s the simple premise of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a movie based on a series of stop-motion shorts of the same name, created by Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp. The shorts are as small as their subject matter, a series of rough-cut “documentaries” in which Marcel (voiced by Slate), a shell with a single googly eye and a pair of shoes, answers questions about how he lives. Looking into the camera, Marcel explains what he uses as a beanbag chair (“a raisin”) and how he gets around (“my car’s a bug”).

The movie gently coaxes something more substantial out of the material. The format remains mostly the same—Marcel self-consciously explains his little world to a mostly unseen documentary filmmaker named Dean (Fleischer-Camp, who also directs the feature)—but the film stitches these one-off statements about Marcel’s life into a bigger picture. Marcel lives alone, except for his grandmother Nana Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). Their lives are charming and small, if more than a little hard. Interestingly, Marcel’s story rhymes with Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians in surprising ways.

First Thessalonians is a letter of encouragement to a community of believers who were new to the church. Paul’s letter reminded them that they were part of a larger community of believers, not alone or abandoned. Marcel the Shell captures similar feelings of being young, alone, and unsure of what to do. Like the early church community, Marcel and his grandmother feel isolated; they’re the last remnants of a large community of shells that disappeared a few years before.

Marcel’s day-to-day life—and, by extension, the movie—echoes the personal encouragement of Paul’s letter. First Thessalonians spends most of its early chapters affirming the faith and development of the early church, pivoting to theology only at the very end. The epistle is primarily concerned with the worth of ordinary living and steady work. Eugene Peterson affirms this in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, saying that “work has dignity; there can be nothing degrading about work if God works.” First Thessalonians 4:9-12 acknowledges that dignity by urging the believers to show love to each other through their work. Marcel the Shell does the same by taking its time to establish Marcel’s life and the work he does to maintain it. Doing so, as well as attending to his grandmother, is part of a sweet and good existence.

TC Podcast: Gentleness (Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Julia)

Despite the goodness of his life, however, Marcel talks to Dean because he’s lonely and the filmmaker is willing to be patient and pay attention to him. Marcel wants to find the rest of his family and friends, so Dean offers to help (a plot point in parallel with Paul’s time spent living and working alongside the church in Thessalonica). He takes Marcel to the top of a nearby mountain as part of their search for Marcel’s family. Sitting on the dashboard of the car, peering out through the windshield at the number of houses below, Marcel realizes just how big the outside world is. The camera sits far back in the car, so Marcel is just a dot in the middle of the screen, framed by the windshield. Sitting there for a few long, quiet seconds, Marcel looks so small and alone.

Still, he shows Dean his little world with enthusiastic playfulness. He demonstrates how he collects oranges from the tree outside (I won’t spoil the method, but it involves creative use of some string and a kitchen mixer) and how he gets around the house without being detected (by rolling around in a tennis ball). His methods are inventive, but they’re also quite difficult for someone so small. Marcel doesn’t want to admit it, but he’s discouraged, caring for his aging grandmother with no one to care for him.

Dean and Marcel concoct a plan to post videos online asking for help locating Marcel’s family. (These videos stitch in footage from the original shorts from the 2010s.) The shorts go viral in the film—just as they did in real life—resulting in a sudden onslaught of online attention. Rather than help Marcel in his search, influencers start using his house as a photo opportunity. Their photo ops are a transaction, where they feel they’re getting something of value by being at Marcel’s house while showering him with attention. But he feels further isolated by their impersonal exchanges and he retreats deeper into the house, into his own loneliness and worry.

The movie treats Marcel’s self-imposed isolation as unsustainable. Before, he was alone due to circumstance, but now his isolation drives him further even from his grandmother and Dean. It’s only through their insistence that Marcel comes out of his figurative shell and makes personal connections again. He’s rejected the intense attention of Internet fame for something better: quiet conversations and personal relationships. In A Long Obedience, Peterson affirms the value of holy work that transforms Christians “from consumers who use work to get things” into people who are capable of “being in creative relationship with one another.

Marcel’s longing for community is a good one. He doesn’t want the full attention of the whole world, he just wants connection with the people who love and know him intimately. Dean and Nana Connie’s encouragement brings to mind Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 to “mind your own business and work with your hands” and to live peaceful and quiet lives with others in the church. The work might be hard, but it is good and worthwhile. Marcel the Shell affirms that. Through the hard work of building relationships, Marcel is able to be part of a community bigger than himself, a small piece of a larger whole.

Topics: Movies