How ‘Marcel the Shell With Shoes On’ Saved Jenny Slate

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OWhat if for a fleeting moment, when you really, really needed it, you could be a little brave? What if you could look at the thing about yourself that you’re embarrassed about, that you think others might find odd or different, and get upset about it from time to time? Maybe even brag that this is what makes you great?

What if when you were hit by the weight of loneliness or faced with great loss, even briefly, you could access the emotional memory of love and community and broadcast it to the world instead of despair?

What if you smiled a lot, just because it was worth it?

We can learn a lot from Marcel and Jenny Slate, the actress who co-created the character at a complicated crossroads in her life, and has since watched the little guy, against all odds, soar.

Marcel is the thimble-sized hero Marcel the shod shell, the new film from A24. Marcel, who is literally a shell with shoes, first appeared in the 2010 stop-motion short by Slate and her then-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp. In a time before it was a word in internet culture that people understood, the video went “viral”. In the years since, it has spawned sequels, bestselling children’s books and now what might be the most genuinely touching movie of the summer.

Few characters are as valuable as Marcel, hence the fervent fanbase he has amassed. He’s so delicate, a tiny little shell with a googly eye, a crescent moon mouth, and tiny sneakers. Her voice is soft and melting, that kind of whispered, toddler-like seriousness we’re programmed to feel protective of.

“There’s something about Marcel that because he’s so different and he looks so different – he’s not even an animal that you can identify – the only thing you can project about him, those are your very real feelings,” Slate told The Daily Beast in a recent interview.

For a 1-inch-tall miniature conch, Marcel is also incredibly resourceful, able to adapt to a human world in inventive ways. Take the “rover” tennis ball, for example, which he uses to get around the house, or the two slices of bread he fashions into a mattress and quilt in his “dining room”. Making it all that much more adorable is Marcel’s cunning sense of humor and the joy he takes in putting together clever puns, comedic explainers that not only detail the mechanics of how he moves in a big and big world, but also his inspiration. world Vision.

“Guess what hat I wear? he asks with a smirk before replying, “Lens.” Or, he explains, “I once snacked on a piece of cheese and my cholesterol went to 900.” There’s something compelling about the way he describes his small-scale life with such sincerity: “Sometimes people say my head is too big for my body, and I say, ‘Compared to what? ?'”

His hammy one-liners and laid-back confidence are kind of a mix between Borscht Belt comedian and his life coach. If the Marcel the shod shell the film had just done 90 minutes of these witty marcelisms: “Guess what I do for adventure? I hang glide on a Dorito. – fans of the character would have been more than happy: something nice and fun in a time when so much seems otherwise.

That the film ends up packing such an emotional punch — its beautiful musical score meshes well with the sniffles at a recent New York screening — might come as a surprise. But it’s on us. At this point, we should know better than to underestimate Marcel. And, by the way, the value and substance that Slate, who first voiced the character 12 years ago, has always brought to his art.

“How we built this story and how I became Marcel is really personal to me,” Slate says. “When I do, I’m just kind of following my own little light down a very, very personal hallway. But I think people like to have a safe space and a beautiful setting to experience feelings that can sometimes be overwhelming if you are alone. Tenderness. Loneliness. The truth that loss and death are real. The truth that identity is something that can be touched by others, and sometimes brutally. I think when people look Marcel, they are able to project themselves onto him.

You’ll learn more about Marcel’s backstory in the film. A mysterious tragedy separated Marcel, his Nana Connie (miraculously voiced by Isabella Rossellini) and their pet, Alan, from the rest of their community. Now on their own, they did their best “not just to survive, but to have a good life.” (The simplicity of that sentiment alone is almost overwhelming.)

The house whose small corners they occupy is also a short-term rental. When a filmmaker named Dean (played by Fleischer-Camp) moves in, he makes a documentary about Marcel, which, much like the one Slate and Fleischer-Camp made in real life, goes viral. The attention he receives takes Marcel on an unplanned journey, the hope of which is to reunite him with his community. It also helps him realize how much stronger he was and that he might be capable of more than he ever knew or dreamed.

“I described Marcel as my psyche at its most ambitious level of health,” Slate says. “He still has an attitude sometimes. And he has doubts and he has boundaries and he’s able to make cramped decisions because of fear. He is not always totally ready to embark on the adventure.

When I do, I’m just kind of following my own little light down a very, very personal hallway. But I think people like to have a safe space and a beautiful setting to experience feelings that can sometimes be overwhelming if you’re alone. Tenderness. Solitude. The truth that loss and death are real.

One of the main plot points of marcel the movie is that it’s his grandmother who really encourages him to come out of his shell – pardon the pun. But what is striking is how it depicts the parts of our human selves that are constant works in progress. The difference is the purity of Marcel. His world, until now, has existed in a confined, somewhat sheltered space. He was protected from darkness, restlessness and ugliness. “He doesn’t have the weird, hungry urgency that a lot of us live with now,” Slate says, “mostly because of social media.”

Marcel was born, so to speak, in 2010, when Slate and Fleischer-Camp were saving money at a wedding by sharing a hotel room with four other people. To make everyone in crowded neighborhoods laugh, Slate started speaking in a voice that sounded small and timid. A little later, Fleischer-Camp was hooked for a short at a comedy show in Brooklyn and forgot until the last minute. He remembered the piece from Slate and was inspired to create the Marcel shell, making the character from less than $10 supplies he found at his neighborhood bodega. In two days, they had created this first short film.

In the years that followed, Slate’s profile in Hollywood skyrocketed. His work in films like Obvious child has won several Critics’ Actress Awards and has appeared in television comedies, including Parks and recreation, Girls, house of liesand Married. This should come as no surprise, after watching marcel, that she is a prolific voice actress. In 2019, she released a Netflix comedy special titled Stage fright and a book titled Little Weirds.

Ten years ago, when she and Fleischer-Camp were in that hotel room improvising this savvy little mollusc, Slate was best known for her one-season stint on Saturday Night Live. Famously, she accidentally cursed in her first on-air episode, a two-second headline that ended up eclipsing the rest of her work that year.

We then understand why she cherishes this character and why she keeps coming back to it. This is also why Marcel the shod shell was never going to be a movie of one-liners and punchlines about Marcel’s height.

“It was never a question of us taking it a little more seriously or not,” she says. “I understand that it’s surprising to people because what they remember are lines like, ‘Guess what my skis are? A man’s fingernails.’ But the reason the character exists is because of what Dean and I were going through as artists at that time. He can tell his own story, but for me, I was coming out of a year of restrictions, rejections and doubts. Like, feeling really sure there was something worthy about me, but really not knowing how to show it.

Imagine how rewarding it is to not only find an outlet to work on something like this, but also to stick with it and evolve and deepen it with you – and with someone as a creative partner with who you have such an intimate connection.

Slate and Fleischer-Camp were a couple when they created Marcel, and married in 2012. After four years, they separated. Slate became a tabloid staple when she started dating her co-star in the film Gifted, Chris Evans. (The unknown attention she received inspires a major arc in the new marcel movie.) In 2021, Slate married art curator Ben Shattuck and they welcomed a daughter.

The cast and crew of Marcel the shod shell

A24

Throughout this time, Slate and Fleischer-Camp continued to work on Marcel projects. When asked what it was like to collaborate on a film like this with someone she shares such a moving story with, she gives a rather moving response. “I think it’s a huge privilege to know someone so, so well, and to have them know you, and to feel totally free to stretch the performance as far as you can,” she says.

There’s a scene in the movie where Marcel talks about being separated from his family, and he becomes overwhelmed, asking if he can be put in a Kleenex because he’s crying. Slate was crying while recording this dialogue. You can hear Fleischer-Camp as the character “Dean” in the film telling Marcel, “That’s going to be the last thing we do today.” But Fleischer-Camp said that to comfort Slate.

“It’s a giant, giant privilege,” she reiterates. “In order to do the job that we needed to do and be the people that we wanted to be with each other, we had to dedicate ourselves to creating a new space, which is what this movie is. It is a space where things are transformed into something good.


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