Sometimes, the smallest things have the biggest hearts.
Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On tells the story of an adorable knick-knack and his search for family. Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate), a one-inch-tall shell with a single googly-eye, lives with his Grandmother as the sole survivors of a tragedy that saw his family disappear into the night. When a documentary director rents their home as an AirBnB, he cannot help but make Marcel his next subject. But, when the video goes viral online, Marcel begins to hope that these simple videos might lead to him finding the family that he lost and loves so dearly.
While Marcel may seem like a strange project, there’s something adorable and relatable about him that is deeply connecting with audiences. As the film continues to expand in North American theatres, Fleischer-Camp admits that the accolades and response have been overwhelming.
“It’s been amazing. It’s been so fun to talk with people and it’s been sort of surreal to me,” he beams. “We worked on this film for seven years. I remember when we premiered it at Telluride and I started hearing laughter and crying. It was just so moving and surprising. I was just like, “Oh yeah, that joke I forgot was funny three and a half years ago is really funny and gets a big laugh.” It’s thrilling. The memes that people have been making are incredible. I’m just grateful for the entire experience.”
One of the most unique aspects of Marcel is Fleischer-Camp’s decision to shoot the film using documentary techniques. In doing so, he brings a sense of reality to the project that other animated fare are unable to do. In fact, for him, the documentary style was always part of the concept.
“I’ve always been [interested in] documentaries and have worked on documentaries,” Fleischer-Camp explains. “I’ve also worked on things that blur the line between documentary and scripted narratives. So, it’s always been something I’m exploring. To me, it provides a way for an audience to have an intimate interaction with a character that does away with sort of the artifice of what you might get from a Pixar movie or a Disney movie that doesn’t have that approach. I think that, for whatever reason, stripping that away allows people allows people to respond to Marcel. He’s a real person. So, that inspired it.”
“The original shorts, although they were so short,… were [also] a documentary format,” he continues. “I had intentionally edited it to feel sort of like a rough cut of a documentary. It cuts them off mid-sentence and things like that. It always felt like part of the magic that those shorts bottled. [There is] this great tension that happens when you combine stop motion, which is like the most labor intensive pre-visualized art form on earth with this aesthetic or film grammar that feels like its unquestionably spontaneous and authentically documentary. When you combine those two things, I think it’s just total magic. So, I was really focused on preserving that for the feature.”
Originally conceived as a series of YouTube shorts by Fleischer-Camp and his writing partner, Jenny Slate (who also voices Marcel), they did not know that people would respond to their beloved character. But, when they became an internet sensation, they knew that they had more story to tell. In fact, Fleischer-Camp contends that he always wanted to bring him to the big screen.
“It was always kind of the plan to turn this character into a feature,” he points out. “At the time that I made the shorts, I was an editor for a living, doing the worst editing gigs and was interested segueing into directing. So that was kind of always the plan. But after the first one took off, when something goes viral or is popular on the internet, you can get meetings with all the major studios and do this sort of water bottle tour of Los Angeles, but they’re not going to trust you to make your weird feature. They just want you to license your beloved character to them to make something that is a more familiar kind of tentpole franchise.”
“Going through that process, it was recognizable right away [that] I’m really young. They’re not going to trust me to do this. We’re going to have to make this film independently and it might take a long time. But, ultimately, I’m so glad that we had this more patient process and that we found the right supporters creatively, financially, that we could expand Marcel’s world in a good way that felt holistic to the character we made.”
Although Marcel may be small, his emotional arc is massive in his first film. Even though they created the initial shorts quickly, Fleischer-Camp and Slate found that there was a beauty about the young trinket’s soul. With that realization, they knew that had created something special.
“There wasn’t too much thought put into [the original short],” Fleischer-Camp recalls. “We made it in [about] 48 hours. Jenny and I wrote it very quickly. She improvised and I crafted the character very quickly. It was all kind of a rush and just done on a whim because it made us laugh. But I think what we realized once we saw the response… was that this character is so much richer and deeper than he appears and that there was so much more to explore about him. There was such a rich, inner life. It always feels like a total pleasure to write for this character and create stories for him. I often feel like I’m like just as moved by and inspired by him and by his circumstances in life and his approach to life as anyone.“
Dealing with themes of grief and loss, there’s a seriousness to the film that is entirely unexpected. However, Fleischer-Camp believes that it’s the film’s willingness to lean into the shadows of life that makes Marcel’s journey so unique.
“I think that he’s inspiring for that reason,” he argues. “I think it’s part of the reason he resonates with so many people. But you can’t really have the happiness and the real nectar of life, if you haven’t also been through and process the grief of it. Part of what I was interested in portraying in this movie is that pain, grief and loss are an inherent part of the cycle of life. You cannot literally—in nature but also, at least I’ve found in my own life—you can’t create new growth without death and decay. Those things enrich the soil, that growth sprouts from.”
With the success of Marcel’s big screen debut, it begs the question of whether or not we’ll see more of the young tchotchke. Although Fleischer-Camp can’t predict the future, there’s little doubt that he’d like to see him have future adventures.
“I don’t know what the future holds for Marcel, but I hope it’s a lot,” says Fleischer-Camp. “I hope that after the film comes out, there’s audiences that will want to see [more]. I don’t know if it’s a sequel or a TV series or more shorts or what but I would love to continue to explore the character in whatever way is fun and cool and chill for me and Jenny. We created this whole community of characters that are only in the last three minutes in the movie. Spoiler alert. (laughs) I was so sad watching it [when I realized that] we’ve fleshed out all these great characters. Some of them have some of my favorite comedians, Nathan fielder, a fellow Canuck, as the voice talent. They’re so funny and so great and I hope we get a chance to explore those characters as well.”
To hear our interview with Dean Fleischer-Camp, click here.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is in theatres now.