How “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” saved Jenny Slate

What if you could be a little brave for a fleeting moment when you really, really needed it? What if you were able to look at the thing about yourself that you are confident about, that you think others might find strange or different, and get upset about it every now and then? Maybe even brag that it’s what makes you great?

What if when you were struck by the burden of loneliness or faced with a great loss, even if brief, you were able to access the emotional memory of love and community and take it out into the world instead of to despair?

What if you smile a lot just because it’s worth it?

We can learn a lot from Marcel — and from Jenny Slate, the actress who helped create the character at a complicated crossroads in her life and who has since defied the odds on the little guy.

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

Few characters are as valuable as Marcel, hence the fervent fan base he has built. He’s so petite, a tiny little shell with a googly eye, a crescent-shaped mouth and tiny sneakers. His voice is meltingly soft, that kind of whispered, toddler-like seriousness we’re programmed to protect ourselves with.

“There’s something about Marcel because he’s so different and looks so different — he’s really not even an animal that you can identify — the only thing you can project onto him is his very real feelings,” Slate tells The Daily Beast in a final job interview.

For a miniature 1 inch clam, Marcel is also incredibly imaginative and able to adapt to a human world in inventive ways. Take, for example, the tennis ball “rover” he uses to get around the house, or the two slices of bread he uses in his “breakfast room” to make a mattress and a duvet. To make it all the more delightful, Marcel’s sly sense of humor and the delight he takes in devising clever puns are comedic explanations that not only describe the mechanics of how he gets around in a big, big world, but also his inspiration worldview.

“Guess what hat I wear?” he asks, grinning before replying, “lens.” Or he explains, “One time I nibbled on a piece of cheese and my cholesterol went to 900.” There’s something compelling about the Way he describes his life on a small scale with such great sincerity: “Sometimes people say my head is too big for my body and I’m like, ‘Compared to what?'”

His edgy one-liners and easygoing confidence are something of a hybrid of borscht-belt comedian and life coach. If the Marcel wears the shell with shoes on The film had been just 90 minutes of those hilarious Marcelisms – “Guess what adventure I’m on? I’m gliding on a Dorito.” – Fans of the character would have been more than thrilled: something nice and fun at a time when so much seems to be the opposite.

That the film would pack such an emotional punch at the end – its beautiful musical score paired well with the sniffles at a recent screening in New York – might come as a surprise. But that’s on us. At this point, we should know better than to underestimate Marcel. And for that matter, the value and substance that Slate, who first voiced the character 12 years ago, always brought to her art.

“The way we put this story together and how I become Marcel is all very personal to me,” says Slate. “When I do this, I’m just following my own tiny light down a very, very personal corridor. But I think people like to have a safe space and a nice environment to feel feelings that can sometimes be overwhelming when you’re alone. Tenderness. Lonliness. 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 see Marcel, they can project themselves onto him.”

In the film you will learn more about Marcel’s backstory. A mysterious tragedy separated Marcel, his nana Connie (voiced miraculously by Isabella Rossellini) and their darling Alan from the rest of their community. Now alone, they have done their best “not just to survive, but to live a good life”. (The simplicity of that feeling alone is almost staggering.)

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

“I have described Marcel as my psyche at its highest level of health,” says Slate. “He still has an attitude sometimes. And he has doubts, and he has limitations, and he’s capable of making cramped-looking decisions out of fear. He doesn’t always just dare to jump into adventure.”

When I do this, I’m just following my own tiny light through a very, very personal corridor. But I think people like to have a safe space and a nice environment to feel feelings that can sometimes be overwhelming when you’re alone. Tenderness. Lonliness. 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 break out of his shell – pardon the pun. What strikes a nerve, however, is how it depicts the parts of our human selves that are constantly in the works. The difference is Marcel’s purity. So far, his world has existed in a very small, somewhat protected space. He is shielded from the dark, from the hustle and from the ugliness. “He doesn’t have that weird, hungry urgency that a lot of us live with now,” says Slate, “mainly 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 get everyone laughing in the crowded quarters, Slate began speaking in a voice that sounded small and shy. A little later, Fleischer-Camp was hooked on a short film at a comedy show in Brooklyn and forgot about it until the last minute. Remembering Slate’s bit, he was inspired to create the Marcel shell, crafting the figurine from less than $10 in supplies he found at his neighborhood bodega. Within two days they had created this first short film.

In the years since, Slate’s profile in Hollywood has exploded. Her work in films like obvious child won her acting awards from several critics and appeared in TV comedies including Parks and Recreation, girl, house of liesand Married. It shouldn’t come as a surprise after watching it Marcelthat she is a prolific voice actress. In 2019, she released a Netflix comedy special called Stage Fright and a book entitled Little crazy people.

A decade ago, when she and Fleischer-Camp were in that hotel room and launched this clever little mollusc, Slate was best known for her one-season stay Saturday night live. She famously accidentally cursed in her first on-air episode, a two-second headline that eventually overshadowed the rest of her work that year.

So it’s understandable why she appreciates this character and why she keeps coming back. This is also the reason Marcel wears the shell with shoes on would never be a film with one-liners and punchlines about Marcel’s size.

“For us it was never a question of whether we take it a little more seriously or not,” she says. “I understand it’s surprising to people because they remember lines like ‘Guess what my skis are? A man’s toenails.” But the reason the character exists at all is because of what Dean and I experienced as artists back then. He has his own story to tell, but I’ve had a year of limitations, rejections, and self-doubt for me. Just like feeling like there’s something really valuable about me, but I really don’t know how to show it.”

Imagine the fulfillment of not just finding a way to process something like this, but sticking with it and evolving and deepening it with you – and with someone you have such a close connection with as a creative partner to have.

Slate and Fleischer-Camp were in a relationship when they formed Marcel and married in 2012. They split after four years. Slate became something of a tabloid when she started dating her co-star in the film gifted, Chris Evans. (The unusual attention she received inspires a wide arc in the new Marcel Movie.) In 2021, Slate married art curator Ben Shattuck and they welcomed a daughter.


cast and crew of Marcel wears the shell with shoes on


During all this time, Slate and Fleischer-Camp continued to work on Marcel projects. When asked what it was like to work on a film like this with someone with whom she shares such an emotional backstory, she gives a rather moving answer. “I think it’s a huge privilege to know someone so well and to know that they know you and to feel completely free to stretch the performance as much as possible,” she says.

There is a scene in the film where Marcel is talking about being separated from his family and he is overwhelmed and asks if he can be put in a Kleenex because he is crying. Slate actually cried during the recording of this dialogue. You can hear Fleischer-Camp as the character of “Dean” in the film telling Marcel, “That’s going to be the last thing we do today.” But Fleischer-Camp was actually saying that to comfort Slate.

“It’s a huge, huge privilege,” she reiterates. “In order to do the work we needed to do and be the people we wanted to be together, we had to devote ourselves to creating a new space, and that’s what this film is.” It’s a place where things were made into something good.” How “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” saved Jenny Slate


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