Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer Camp discuss the genesis of their lovable animated creation, once the star of viral YouTube clips, now a full-on feature.
Courtesy of A24

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Hearing the tiny voice at the heart of A24's Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (out June 24), an animated adventure with indie instincts, makes you want to lean in and pay attention. It's the sound of an imaginative five-year-old boy, constantly in a state of show-and-tell, and blooming into confidence, but not quite there.

To learn that it's Jenny Slate who voices Marcel, a talkative shell, shouldn't be such a surprise: She's the vocal wizard who, on Kroll Show, turned the slurry whines of publicists into high art. Her career as a stand-up comedian, actress and animation MVP extends to movies such as Obvious Child, Zootopia and Gifted. But when we ask Slate where Marcel came from, way back in 2010, she goes to some of her earliest professional successes — and setbacks.

"I'd spent the last year on Saturday Night Live trying to save my butt by doing every voice I could think of," Slate, 40, recalls. (Her one-year tenure, a rocky one, was marked — ironically, for someone with such control — by an accidental f-bomb dropped on live TV.) "Maybe just in my heart, I'd saved the voice for something that I was more suited for, an unstructured environment. Marcel came from a place in my imagination that felt like it needed to say the truth of one's feelings of both smallness and also significance, and not wanting to separate those two. That's where I was in my creative life at the time."

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On
Credit: A24

Slate has no problem going deep on the psychology of a character that she'd call the opposite of slight. "You know how some people, even as adults, go back to a strange mannerism that they adopted as a child to soothe themselves?" she offers. "Like, even as an adult, they sleep in a fetal position or they bite their nails or suck their thumbs, even, or twirl their hair? I feel like I've never had something that offered me a real infusion of warmth and comfort. But the Marcel voice for me was that, and is that. I do it a lot in my life, even when I'm not performing. Marcel is gentle."

Gentleness isn't something you associate with summer movies, nor with the hard-bitten Brooklyn comedy scene. But that's exactly where Slate and her Marcel collaborator, Dean Fleischer Camp, sprung their first short on an unsuspecting audience. Camp, 38, says he'd never animated anything before, but it didn't prevent him from recording an "interview" with Slate doing Marcel, designing the character, and editing a three-minute stop-motion clip in 48 hours.

"It was very fast, me alone in my apartment, just working through the night to finish this thing," he says. "A lot of our friends had comedy shows in Brooklyn at the time, and I screened lots of videos at those, but this one just felt very different. Remember, it's 2010 Brooklyn, alternative comedy shows and dive bars, where people are just standing around with their arms crossed with a frowny face. It was not the kind of place where anyone expected to have their heart warmed."

Warmed they were, to the tune of millions of online views after the video was posted (follow-up clips refueled the phenomenon in 2011 and 2014). Suddenly, there was studio interest. But to the eventual film's advantage, Camp and Slate, then a couple, both felt protective of Marcel, who was more than just a cute seashell with a stuck-on googly eye, but a conduit to something personal and therapeutic. 

"We took a lot of meetings," Camp recalls, "but we always felt we couldn't wipe the dollar signs out of their eyes. And we felt, Oh, this is sort of dangerous. What they're seeing is — it could be the next Minions."

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On
From left, Jenny Slate, producer Elisabeth Holm, cowriter-editor Nick Paley, Dean Fleischer-Camp, and voice talent Isabella Rossellini

Ultimately it took plenty of assurances of creative control, a uniquely improvisatory (and time-consuming) production process, and the backing of a director-friendly nonprofit in Cinereach to turn Marcel the Shell with Shoes On into the feature it's become — one that even puts interviewer Camp on camera while preserving his original short's faux-documentary vérité style. When A24 picked the film up out of 2021's Telluride, nearly a decade of work had already happened, in secret.

"We'd never doubted that it could be feature-length," Slate says. "We always felt like there was enough there. But it was more of a task to convince other people, yes, there's enough for a movie and, no, we're not trying to change who Marcel is, what his world is, and that it's just contained in a house. We're not trying to send him into the tundra."

Both intimate and surprisingly accessible — with room for both a Lesley Stahl cameo and an a cappella performance of an Eagles song — Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is the movie its dreamers hoped for. For Slate, it hits hard: "There's a lot of autofiction in this movie, a lot of personal experience repurposed," she says. "That's, for me, why it feels so alive. It's a moving photographic image of my own emotions or something. I love it so much."

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