Marcel the seashell, the internet’s favorite mollusk, had a voice before he had a body.
Actress Jenny Slate was with friends in a hotel room for a wedding when the voice came to her: a childish, high-pitched inflection that would later become key to the animated character’s identity.
“I felt very crushed in the room and started speaking 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 while she did the voice, then assembled items he found in their home—a shell, a googly eye, and shoes stolen from a fake Polly Pocket doll—to create a body.
Thus Marcel, an inch high shell, was born. And soon after came a stop motion short film by Slate and Camp that they uploaded to YouTube.
That was 2010. Now, more than a decade later, the duo – who were married from 2012 to 2016 – are finally taking Marcel to the movies, with A24’s “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”, which makes its nationwide debut on July 15.
Marcel quickly became one of YouTube’s beloved early viral stars in the early 2010s, with the original short garnering over 32 million views. The juxtaposition of his sincere candor and petite body made him an instant internet phenomenon that many saw as a refreshing change from the lack of authenticity that often characterized other social media influencers.
Slate said she “really doesn’t know” how Marcel shaped the internet. However, she said she believed her popularity could stem from her authenticity.
“Marcel is an example of a good person trying to have a satisfying life,” she said.
A long journey to the cinemas
Many Internet stars aspire to move into more traditional mediums, but Marcel is among the few to pull off the feat.
The beloved character made his way into the publishing world first, with two books written by Slate and Camp about Marcel published in 2011 and 2014.
In 2014, Slate and Camp announced they would be making a feature film starring Marcel – but fans had to wait another eight years before they could see the little seashell on the big screen.
We strived to put detail, richness and thoughtful consideration, not just in the script and in the performance.
Throughout this period, Slate, Camp, co-writer Nick Paley and producer Elizabeth Holmes slowly contributed to the project, locking in audio, writing and rewriting the script, recording live action and animation. in stop-motion – while working on other TV shows and movies.
“We strived to put detail, richness and thoughtful thought into not just the script and the performance, but Marcel’s look and his look at his world,” Slate said. “It wasn’t like we were sitting around thinking, ‘What should the movie be about?'”
The film, directed by Camp, follows adorable, inch-tall shell Marcel (Slate) and his grandmother Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini) as the two try to rebuild a life together after their family mysteriously goes missing.
Last weekend, the movie made a total of $170,000 after its limited release.
A ‘sweet and kind’ film, it’s also ‘funny and complex’
Slate said the film will always be about Marcel and his mission to find his loved ones.
She and the team wanted to create a film “soft and kind enough for children to engage with, but funny and complex enough for adults to watch on their own”.
“I like to do things that say there’s something miraculous 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 valuable, and it’s also available to you in this world right now.”
It’s also not lost on “Saturday Night Live” alum Slate that Marcel’s secluded home paralleled nearly everyone else around the world during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has upended lives and forced millions to seek refuge in their homes – prompting many to begin to “feel isolated for having suffered a heartbreaking loss and to feel lost for not being in control of this happened to you,” Slate said.
These themes of isolation, loss and overwhelming grief were already embedded in Camp and Slate’s film when the two began recording in 2016.
The timing of the film and the pandemic was “pretty scary,” Slate said. But she hopes a small object and her quest to find community in a time marked by uncertainty will provide “useful” balm for those looking for the same.
“You really, really want to do your best to stay alive for as long as possible,” Slate said. “But as Marcel says, you don’t just want to survive, you want to have a good life.”