Marcel the Shell, the internet’s favorite mollusk, had a voice before he had a body.
Actor Jenny Slate was with friends at a hotel room for a wedding when the voice came to her: A childlike, high-pitched inflection that would later become key to the identity of the animated character.
“I felt very squished in the room, and I started talking in a little voice,” Slate said. Ella’s voice amused her then-boyfriend, future husband and now ex, filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp.
Camp then interviewed Slate while she did the voice, and later assembled objects he found in their house — a shell, a googly eye and shoes stolen from a fake Polly Pocket doll — to create a body.
Thus Marcel, a one-inch-tall shell, was born. And soon after, came a stop-motion short film by Slate and Camp that they uploaded to YouTube.
That was in 2010. Now, over a decade later, the duo — who were married from 2012 to 2016 — is finally bringing 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 beloved earliest viral stars in the early 2010s, with the original short film amassing more than 32 million views. The juxtaposition of his sincere candor and his small body of him made him an instant internet phenomenon that many people perceived as a refreshing change from the lack of authenticity that often characterized other social media influencers.
Slate said she truly “doesn’t know” how Marcel shaped the internet. However, she said she believes his popularity could stem from his authenticity.
“Marcel is an example of a good person who is trying to have a satisfying life,” she said.
A long journey to movie theaters
Many internet stars aspire to make the leap to more traditional mediums, but Marcel is among the few to achieve the feat.
The beloved character made his way to the publishing world first, with two books penned by Slate and Camp about Marcel released in 2011 and 2014.
In 2014, Slate and Camp announced they would make a feature film with Marcel at his helm — but fans had to wait another eight years before they got to see the small seashell on the big screen.
We tried really hard to put detail and richness and thoughtful consideration not just into the storyline and into the performance.
Throughout that time period, Slate, Camp, co-writer Nick Paley and producer Elizabeth Holmes slowly chipped at the project, locking down the audio, writing and re-writing the script, recording the live-action shots and the stop-motion animation — all while working on other TV shows and films.
“We tried really hard to put detail and richness and thoughtful consideration not just into the storyline and into the performance, but into the look of Marcel and the look into his world,” Slate said. “It wasn’t like we were sitting around being like, ‘What should the movie be about?’”
The film, directed by Camp, follows an adorable one-inch-tall shell Marcel (Slate) and his grandmother Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini) as the two attempt to rebuild a life together after the mysterious disappearance of their family.
Last weekend, the film earned a total of $170,000 after rolling out in limited release.
A ‘sweet and kind’ film, that’s also ‘funny and complex’
Slate said the film was always going to be about Marcel and his mission to find his loved ones.
She and the team wanted to create a movie “sweet and kind enough for children to engage with, but funny and complex enough for adults to watch on their own.”
“I like making things that say there is something miraculous here,” Slate said of Marcel. “There is something that shows the many different ways we can feel our feelings and have our experiences, and it is incredibly precious, and it is also available to you in this world right now.”
It also isn’t lost on Slate, a “Saturday Night Live” alum, that the isolated home of Marcel paralleled almost everyone else’s in the entire world during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic upended lives and forced millions of people to shelter at-home — prompting many to start “feeling isolated for experiencing shattering loss and for feeling lost that you don’t have control over what happened to you,” Slate said.
These themes of isolation, loss and overwhelming grief were already baked into Camp’s and Slate’s movie when the two began recording in 2016.
The timing of the film and the pandemic was “rather spooky,” Slate said. But she hopes a tiny object and his quest from him to find community at a time marked by uncertainty provides a “useful” salve for those who are seeking the same.
“Really You, really want to try your best to stay alive as long as possible,” Slate said. “But as Marcel says, you want to not just survive, but have a good life.”