Watch: Jenny Slate talks to Yahoo about Marcel The Shell With Shoes On
As diminutive talking shells with shoes, a pet lint called Alan, a googly eye and a unique take on the world go, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On has been an online sensation since he first debuted in a trilogy of short films and books.
Collectively, the three shorts have inspired nearly 50 million views on YouTube alone, film legend Isabella Rossellini is his grandmother, and Cher is now a big fan.
As his first feature film — naturally called Marcel the Shell with Shoes On — debuts in the UK from 17 February, Yahoo talks to Marcel’s co-creator and voice, Jenny Slate (Everything Everywhere All at Once, Zootropolis, Parks and Recreation).
It was around 2010 when Slate’s creative partner and the film’s director and human star Dean Fleischer Camp first asked her to try a voice of a faceless character and see what sort of a personality could emerge in an animation.
"We didn’t know he was a shell yet, just this little voice talking about being small", Slate remembers. "And then Dean made the body of Marcel and when I saw that he recorded me and again interviewed me."
Slate looked at Fleischer Camp’s makeshift anthropomorphic shell wearing doll’s shoes and knew immediately that "Oh, okay – my name is Marcel and I’m partially a shell".
She recalls it being a "very playful, very natural" process. "I don’t think we ever expected Marcel to be seen by anyone apart from maybe a few friends. And then after the shorts became successful, we just let things happen naturally. We made a few books and we waited until we felt there was actually an interesting story to tell."
Step forward Marcel’s feature film debut, yet more viral attention and now nominations for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, Baftas and Golden Globes. And it is something Slate struggles to get her head around.
Read more: The full list of Oscar nominations
"Where we are now with this feature film that will released around the world and has just been nominated for an Oscar – that to me just feels like somebody touched the top of my head with a magic wand".
She continues, shaking her head just as Marcel would. "I didn’t even wish for this. I wouldn’t even know to wish for this! It’s such a specific pleasure gift of a moment."
Watch a trailer for Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
And it is a moment that is totally warranted. Whilst it was not the intent, and production started way before the COVID pandemic, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On captures a great sense of how we use and abuse social media, but also that lockdown isolation the world experienced from Spring 2020.
As the titular shell loses his family community and now resides with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini), Marcel is also roaming in a world of one Californian home until film-maker Dean (played by director Fleischer Camp) rents what is actually an Airbnb and encounters the philosophical shell and his makeshift home.
Slate explains how "The film is about someone stuck in their house… Marcel is there alone, and he is separated from those that he loves."
"It would be impossible to not think of the quarantine and the pandemic when you watch it."
"Initially, Dean and I, our co-writer Nick Paley and Elizabeth Holm our producer were just really interested in the fact that individuals feel isolated a lot anyway", ponders Slate. "There is not any understanding or attention turn to the fact that any one time — even not during a pandemic — there is a large collection of individuals who feel isolated within their own experiences."
For Slate, part of the wholly touching tone of the film is "to say that you are not alone. And that if you do feel isolated, it is a human experience."
She believes it is also both a common and unwanted experience. "We found in our film that one of the things Marcel experiences is loss and grief. Those are some of the elements of his own isolation. But within all of that there are still these beautiful chances for change and growth and risk-taking."
The film’s own risk-taking could well be the rich photo-real, stop-motion animation that head animator Kirsten Lepore gifts Marcel and his improvised world. If a working day yielded five seconds of painstakingly captured film, that was a good day.
"As the animation was coming together, I was just so curious! What are they doing?! What are they going to bring?", Slate excitedly remembers.
"I definitely had total trust in Kirsten and in Dean. Kirsten’s ability as an animator is just astounding – in as much as how much of the performance she created. It is not just me. It is definitely her. Every bit of movement that Marcel does – those are Kirsten’s decisions."
Slate respects how Lepore "worked really hard to find just the right amount of fluidity."
Great effort was made to keep the original spirit and grace of what the world fell in love with. "If Marcel’s movement is too smooth it can be kind of creepy" she notes. "And we did want to make it feel like it was still connected to the original shorts."
Slate congratulates director Fleischer Camp for doing "such a good job at making sure it still looks like the Marcel that you knew and loved if you knew him ten years ago. But that it was not jerky or distracting. And it does look real. But none of it is. It is all animated. It is a feat."
As Marcel shuffles in those dinky shoes onto British movie screens, we ask Jenny Slate if that shell with shoes on has a message for UK audiences.
"I think that if Marcel were here," she ponders carefully, "he would say… ‘Oh, I hope that everybody enjoys this film. And I’m imagining you all drinking tea and watching it. But I guess there’s actually a specific time for tea, like tea-time? So, if it syncs up that you watch it during tea-time I think that would be a great honour because I know that your tea-time is a wonderful ritual in English culture. But whatever you decide to watch, I hope that you have a good time.’"
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On opens in UK cinemas on 17 February, 2023.