When you see Marcel the Shell, your first thought probably melts into a puddle of cute somewhere in your brain before it can fully form. The anthropomorphic seashell wears shoes and has one large googly eye. He also talks in an impossibly cute voice. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On follows Marcel, documentary style, and learns about his life, his perspective, and the search for his family. Marcel director and writer Dean Fleischer-Camp tells Nerdist, “I always thought of it as like the things that people see about Marcel, or comment on first, like ‘he’s tiny’ or ‘he is a talking shell’ or ‘he is adorable.’ Those are secondary to me. And I always saw him as almost… It’s basically a documentary about a person with a disability and a person who is accepting of the terms of their life.”
The film demonstrates how Marcel navigates the world. It’s with a lot of persistence and no small amount of ingenuity. The small shell lives with his grandmother Connie in a short term rental home, so they’re often all alone. Marcel zooms around the house in a tennis ball, which he calls a rover. He rigs a rope to a stand mixer and runs it to the persimmon tree outside. Then he flips the appliance on in order to shake fruit from the branches. His grandmother gardens.
They’ve learned to survive in a house built for much larger inhabitants. But it wasn’t always just them. The crux of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On‘s story centers on Marcel and Connie’s missing family. They all disappeared one night when one of the home’s owners moved out. And that’s just part of what Marcel carries. Fleischer-Camp says there’s an inherent heartbreak about Marcel. Like Marcel says, he’ll never have a dog. Instead he has a piece of lint on a “leash.”
The documentary expands Marcel’s story beyond the 2010 YouTube short that made the shell a star. Marcel co-creator Fleischer-Camp worked with Jenny Slate on those early videos. Then he developed the movie with Slate and Nick Paley. It was a seven year process. “I always feel protective of him. I guess, now that we’ve made the film, I can relax a little bit,” Fleischer-Camp says. “But when we first made the short, I was, at the time, pretty broke taking, like, really horrible editing gigs. And when the short sort of took off on the internet, we got all these like big studio meetings where people suggested we partner with John Cena or whoever. It was really hard to say no to that opportunity at the time because we didn’t know that we’d even find financing to make an independent version of Marcel.”
He adds, “You just feel it in the pit of your stomach. This could be dangerous. They could take the stuff that’s secondarily great about him, like he’s cute or whatever, and really just make the wrong kind of movie with it.”
But instead, Fleischer-Camp and his cohorts got to tell the Marcel story they wanted to tell. They had the chance to expand Marcel’s history and voice into a feature. Fleischer-Camp relates that he and Paley have a more sit down and write process, and that Slate is an “extemporaneous genius.” By the time they started working on the film, though, Fleischer-Camp and Slate had lived with the character for five years. They knew Marcel well enough to know he could drop these profound observations out of nowhere.
Fleischer-Camp explains, “We knew that a real sweet spot, or strength, of the character was that he’s able to make you see your world in a new way because he is viewing it that way all the time. He’s making do in a world that wasn’t made for him. So it’s sort of inspiring that something that has much larger disadvantages than you is so self-possessed and confident and tackles all of those obstacles with total positivity. It’s not total positivity, actually. Sometimes he’s in a funk. Sometimes he’s pissed off. He’s like all of us in that way. But I don’t think he often takes it personally that he’s so small in this big world, and I always found that very inspiring about him.”
A lot can change in seven years. Marcel matured. Fleischer-Camp grew. He notes, “What’s in the film that I feel proud about emotionally is the perspective on grief and loss that I have now, which I think is reflected in the film. What I was hoping to express with the movie, in a really macro way, is that grief and loss are part of life. You can’t really enjoy the happiness or the real nectar of life if you haven’t really sat, in a defenseless helpless way, in the hurt of life. And that’s also mirrored by nature and just the cycle of life and death. There’s no growth that happens in nature or in life that doesn’t kind of grow out of the enriched soil of something that was lost.”
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is in theaters now.