For a lot of families, what makes the world of children’s entertainment so daunting is the simple fact that despite how great Pixar or Dreamworks might be, all of it does feel very corporate. Finding a truly indie kids’ movie, with the same spirit as an indie film, distributed by an indie film studio is often impossible. Until now.
With the release of Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, studio A24, and Marcel creator Jenny Slate have made a twee arthouse movie for kids. Here’s what to know about the film and why Slate told us that she hopes Marcel inspires her own daughter, Ida Lupine.
“I think it's really funny that Marcel will be on a shelf surrounded by really scary movies,” Slate tells Fatherly, referencing the various indie horror titles A24 is known for, including Hereditary, Midsommar, and this year’s overwhelmingly acclaimed Everything Everywhere All At Once. “I think he deserves to be with other individuals who in their own way have a heightened power.”
To walk a mile in Marcel the Shell’s shoes would take forever, given how small the cute, little guy is. It’s why, as seen at the beginning of the new film, he tends to get around the house he lives in by careening across the floor inside of a tennis ball. It’s an effective, if sometimes chaotic means of transportation. Marcel’s journey from viral comedy video in 2010, to big-screen indie family feature in 2022, isn't quite as chaotic, but it is, unexpected.
Jenny Slate — the actress, writer, and comedian, who voices Marcel and co-created the character back in 2010 when the first Marcel short became a critically acclaimed viral sensation — has had a much smoother journey in the decade between those early shorts and Marcel’s big-screen debut. A long road, to be sure, a natural and cathartic one, too.
It didn't need these like giant set pieces or other famous comedy actors.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On — who is, for the uninitiated, exactly what he sounds like — made his debut in a short film created by Dean Fleischer Camp in 2010. In a distinctive squeaky voice that could sound scary if it wasn’t so cute, Marcel tells Fleischer Camp about his daily life living in a big ol’ house, documentary-style. The cute short film spawned two sequels and two picture books in fairly rapid succession. After that, it was an unhurried wait for the right fit for what could come next.
“We had completed those, the discussion that followed was sort of natural. Like, is there more we wanna do here?” Slate tells Fatherly. They took meetings about a Marcel TV show that didn’t feel right. (Now, though, Slate says she’d “love to circle back to that idea because a show, at this point, could be really fun.”) When they started talking to studios about a possible feature film, the pitches they were getting were taking Marcel out of his element too much. After all, Marcel’s whole deal is being a small little guy in his big mostly empty house — not the kind of story that naturally lends itself to an epic adventure or a wise-cracking A-list co-star in a big studio production.
“We felt very sure that there was enough just in his own home environment and enough just in him as himself to carry a film and it didn't need these like giant set pieces or other famous comedy actors to be paired with him,” Slate explains. “Marcel really was kind of lit from within and didn't need this sort of synthetic giant light, like a spotlight, to be put on him.”
Eventually, though, Slate and Dean Fleischer Camp found the right partners — the nonprofit film funding organization Cinereach — and were able to make a movie where Marcel could just be Marcel. That was about seven years ago, as actually making Marcel the Shell With Shoes On took a long, only occasionally leisurely time. (Current events did not exactly speed things up.)
A24 eventually picked up the distribution rights for Marcel the Shell. It’s the studio’s first foray into “family-friendly films,” but Slate, who stared in one of their first movies, Obvious Child, says it’s a great fit because of how much A24 champions artists with unique, distinctive voices.
Of course, the stakes for a feature-length movie — even an indie flick — do need to be a little higher and the action a bit more elaborate than in a viral short. The new movie, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last September ahead of its wide release this summer, follows Marcel and his elderly grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) as they go about life in the Los Angeles house where they live. They used to have a whole bunch of other shell friends and family, but they’re all missing, along with the previous human inhabitants of the house. It’s not until a documentarian who is staying in the house as an Airbnb (a mostly unseen Fleischer Camp, as in the original shorts) begins making a documentary about his tiny roommate that Marcel thinks he might be able to track down the rest of his missing family.
Slate says the process of giving Marcel a bigger story for his big-screen debut meant digging into family dynamics.
“Why is he by himself? What does he think his house is? Were there others? And if so, where are they? Does he want them to come back? And then the story, like just sort of naturally unfolds,” she explains. “Marcel used to have a family. They were taken away. Why were they taken away? Marcel's family got swept away on a tide of grief and bad feelings.”
Sound heavy? Don’t get the wrong impression — Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is absolutely as charming and quirky and sweet as those much-beloved shorts were. There’s just a beautiful, softly mature melancholy that goes along with it.
It exists as a very clear example for my daughter of what kind of artist I am.
These days, as a fairly new mom, Slate says she definitely cares more about “community” than having a big audience. And while being a parent didn’t directly influence the film itself, she says she’s glad it exists as something that can clearly show her daughter who she is as an artist, in addition to the mom who is “steaming the broccoli.”
“I made this and that it exists as a very clear example for my daughter of what kind of artist I am and what my hopes are as a person in this world and what my beliefs are,” Slate says. That will be a specific message for her daughter; the beauty of Marcel the Shell’s twee complexity is that there are unique takeaways for anybody who watches. Marcel isn’t turning to the camera to tell viewers about the Golden Rule. There are more subtle, more powerful messages inside.
“The Marcel movie has a lot of usable models for how to try to enjoy your life on a day-to-day basis, even if your circumstances have sorrow in them,” Slate says. “That's a daily thing. You gotta just keep doing it. There's a good example in there of how that can be invigorating rather than exhausting.”
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is out now and playing in theaters in most states.