Before watching Jenny Slate’s latest film Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, prepare to be deep in your feelings for days to come.
The actress voices a tiny stop motion one-inch shell with a larger-than-life personality, who is living a quiet but meaningful existence alongside his grandmother Connie after being separated from the rest of their family and thriving shell community. The A24 film is currently showing at select theaters and it is the feature-length adaptation of a popular YouTube series of the same name, which Slate and her ex-husband Dean Fleischer-Camp created and debuted in 2010. The first video they released currently has more than 32 million views and thousands of comments praising Fleischer-Camp and Slate for writing and creating such a fun, lively, little animated character who shows a vivid range of emotions.
The animated YouTube clips showed the one-eyed shell’s day-to-day life and his nuggets of wisdom like, “Guess why I smile a lot? ‘Cause it’s worth it.” But the film brings us closer to Marcel and his story when a documentary filmmaker Dean discovers him and his grandmother living inside an Airbnb. Marcel tells Dean the story of how he got separated from his shell family and the filmmaker posts the short film online, and Marcel becomes an online sensation, gaining fans and media attention that promise to bring him closer to finding his long-lost family.
Marcel is sincere, optimistic, and frank in the way he communicates and moves through his world without letting the realities of his life get to his heart. But he’s not perfect either. He also gets frustrated, angry, afraid, and defensive, just like the rest of us, and it doesn’t make him any less lovable. Slate and her ex-husband created this character shortly after the comedian’s quick stint on Saturday Night Live ended after just one season in 2010, (she infamously dropped an f-bomb in a live skit during her first episode). From there, the actress went on to star in movies like Obvious Child and I Want You Back and TV shows like Parks and Recreation, released a children’s book based on the Marcel YouTube videos, and wrote a book of essays Little Weirds. Slate has voiced Marcel for so long—they dropped three short films in total—and during an interview with Complex, she says she still aims to be more like him in her personal life.
“As a person, I can feel reluctant to show that I can get angry and that I do have doubts both personal and larger ones,” Slate tells Complex. “I feel hesitant sometimes and I feel fear and so I think for me playing this character and showing that in this beloved character, he can also be in a really bad mood. It helped me to integrate those things and make them more accessible in my own behavior and understand that there is no feeling that is not allowed.”
She added: “It’s only a process of how you regulate your behavior when you’re interacting and Marcel is trying to do that as well.”
The film also stars Isabella Rossellini, Rosa Salazar, Thomas Mann and 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl. Check out our interview with Jenny Slate about the inspiration behind her character Marcel, allowing ourselves to feel all of our emotions, and the dangers of forced positivity.
What was the whole thought process behind creating this character and his story?
Jenny Slate: It’s just instincts and the compulsion to perform. I think while Dean put a lot of time into the stop motion animation that went into making the shorts, the performance itself and the character that we crafted really came from the two of us just playing around and I think that is why there is that thing in there. It’s like a life force that we drummed up by playing a fun game with each other.
But I think also behind every character that I create or a bit of standup that I perform or essay that I write, there is always a good group of emotions that needs to be expressed. For me, at the time, I did feel rather small but I also felt like I liked myself and it was irritating to me that for some reason it felt like those two things couldn’t sit side-by-side and be in the same area together. A lot of times I think I have an instinct to prove that I exist and I think I’m worth it and I think that is at the start of it.
Marcel is such a tiny little being but he’s such a big heart, and such a big personality, and your performance really captivated his wide range of emotions. What was it like to voice this character, and bring this character to life that we’ve never really seen before?
JS: Marcel is really kind and he’s really straightforward. But the other thing is he does feel fear, and he has doubts and he can be hesitant and shut down and I think while it is very easy for me to perform the parts of Marcel that are kind and funny and all of the things that I want to be and want people in my life to see as qualities that I have.
As a person, I can feel reluctant to show that I can get angry and that I do have doubts both personal and larger ones. I feel hesitant sometimes and I feel fear and so I think for me playing this character and showing that in this beloved character, he can also be in a really bad mood. It helped me to integrate those things and make them more accessible in my own behavior and understand that there is no feeling that is not allowed.
It’s only a process of how you regulate your behavior when you’re interacting and Marcel is trying to do that as well. It’s just been really nice to spend so much time playing the character because it actually helps set an example. It was aspirational for me. This is actually what I think a cool person looks like. I think Marcel is a cool person, how can I be following in his tiny little footsteps?
I think the film has a really good message of, “Hey, you can feel all these emotions, you can feel these things and not be afraid of it and not be ashamed of it.” Do you think that’s important for people to see?
JS: I think there is an over-simplification of this sort of forced positivity: “Just be positive! Stay positive!” While, of course, it’s really important to be positive it’s also important to make room for all of the other stuff that you’re going to feel. It can be rather confusing because right now in culture, especially with social media, there’s a lot of talking about how we’re all just feeling our feelings now, we’re not repressed, we’re not the generations before, we let it all out there. But I actually think that there is a deeper conditioning that still tells us that some things don’t belong. There are actually very few people who are putting photos on Instagram that aren’t thought about. Hardly anything actually is like a spur-of-the-moment behavior and that’s the arena that we are all engaging with all the time. It can make you forget like yeah, you might be living by this belief system where you really value authenticity and positivity but how is that limiting you and pushing you into a caricature of yourself where you only let yourself be authentic or you only let yourself be positive? It’s actually kind of neutralizing those qualities anyway.
I like this example of Marcel of how to be because he’s just not thinking about it and it works out for him but the way that Marcel’s story ends up working out isn’t just like, “Well, I persevered and so I got there.” It was more, I took these risks and within these risks, I suffered some profound losses. I gained back what I had asked for. It was a different fit than I thought it would be and now my new process is dealing with the ultimate thing, which is how it feels to be a consistent person going through a series of changes.
What do you hope people get out of the movie?
JS: I hope that they feel cared for. I hope people feel cared for by the movie and I hope that they feel entertained. I hope that they’re reminded of a feeling of hope and reinvigorated with the type of stamina that they can’t quite define but feels like a worthwhile way to be.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is now in theaters.