Marcel the Shell, the internet’s favorite mollusk, had a voice before he had a body.
Actor Jenny Slate was with friends in a hotel room for a wedding when the voice came to her: a childlike, high pitched inflection that would later become key to the animated character’s identity.
“I felt very squashed in the room and started talking in a small voice,” Slate said. The voice amused her then-boyfriend, future husband and now ex, filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp.
Camp then interviewed Slate as she did the voice, later collecting objects he found in their home — a shell, a googly eye, and shoes stolen from a fake Polly Pocket doll — to create a body.
This is how Marcel, a shell 2.5 cm high, was born. And shortly after that there was a stop-motion short movie by Slate and Camp who uploaded them to YouTube.
That was in 2010. Now, more than a decade later, the duo — who were married from 2012 to 2016 — are finally taking Marcel to theaters, with A24’s “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” which debuts nationwide on July 15.
Marcel quickly became one of YouTube’s much-loved earliest viral stars in the early 2010s, with over 32 million views for the original short film. The combination of his genuine candor and small body made him an instant internet phenomenon that many people saw as a refreshing change from the lack of authenticity that often characterized other influencers on social media.
Slate said she really “don’t know” how Marcel shaped the internet. However, she said she believes its popularity could stem from its authenticity.
“Marcel is an example of a good person trying to live a fulfilling life,” she said.
A long trip to cinemas
Many internet stars aspire to make the leap to more traditional media, but Marcel is one of the few who can.
The beloved character made his way into the publishing world first, with two books written by Slate and Camp about Marcel, released in 2011 and 2014.
In 2014, Slate and Camp announced they would be making a feature film with Marcel at the helm – but fans had to wait another eight years before seeing the tiny seashell on the big screen.
We tried very hard to give detail and richness and thoughtful attention, not just in the storyline and in the execution.
During that time, Slate, Camp, co-writer Nick Paley and producer Elizabeth Holmes slowly broke down the project, locking down the audio, writing and rewriting the script, shooting the live-action shots and the stop-motion animation — all while work on other TV shows and movies.
“We tried very hard to give detail and richness and thoughtful attention, not only in the storyline and execution, but also in Marcel’s look and look into his world,” said Slate. “It wasn’t like we were thinking, ‘What should the movie be about?'”
Directed by Camp, the film follows Marcel (Slate) and his grandmother Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini), an adorable one-inch-tall shell, as the two try to build a life together after their family’s mysterious disappearance.
Last weekend the film made a total of $170,000 after rolling out in limited release.
A ‘sweet and friendly’ film, which is also ‘funny and complex’
Slate said the film would always be about Marcel and his mission to find his loved ones.
She and the team wanted to make a film that was “sweet and friendly enough for children to work with, but funny and complex enough for adults to watch alone.”
“I like making things that say there’s something wonderful here,” Slate said of Marcel. “There’s something that shows the many different ways we can feel our feelings and have our experiences, and it’s incredibly precious, and it’s available to you in this world now too.”
It’s also not lost on Slate, an alum of “Saturday Night Live,” that Marcel’s isolated home amid the pandemic paralleled nearly everyone else around the world.
The Covid-19 pandemic has turned lives upside down, forcing millions of people into shelter at home – leaving many feeling “isolated because they’ve been through a crushing loss and because they feel lost that you have no control over what happens to you.” happened to you,” said Slate.
These themes of isolation, loss and overwhelming grief were already ingrained in Camp and Slate’s film when the two started shooting in 2016.
The timing of the movie and the pandemic was “rather haunted,” Slate said. But she hopes that a small artifact and his quest to find communion in a time marked by uncertainty will provide a “useful” salve to those seeking the same.
“You want to really, really do your best to stay alive as long as possible,” Slate said. “But as Marcel says, you don’t just want to survive, but you also want to have a good life.”