In 2010, when filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp and then-partner Jenny Slate made the three-minute short “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” they couldn’t have predicted the fame to come. Over a decade later, the viral hit about the talking seashell who rambles off charming life philosophies has been adapted to a surprise feature-length film that landed at Telluride this week without warning.
The movie’s existence after all this time is the result of a long journey for the two collaborators, who separated in 2016. The original “Marcel” short (which played Sundance and AFI) found Slate voicing the eponymous stop-motion shell with a single googly eye who made charming, high-pitch observations about his low-key life. Following the viral acclaim, Fleischer-Camp and Slate made a sequel in 2011 followed by a pair of illustrated children’s books. In the meantime, the filmmaker and standup comedian fielded serious offers for a character they never expected to resonate on a large scale.
“We fielded a lot of offers and heard people out,” Fleischer-Camp said in an interview at the festival this week. “I didn’t know what I was doing as a filmmaker back then. I could see it getting out of hand and we could end up making a project that I didn’t relate to because the character has such broad appeal. He’s cute and has bright colors. Certain people in the industry will see it in a certain way and wonder if it could be a ride at Disneyland. We really wanted to protect it.”
There were a few moments where Fleischer-Camp realized their passion project was in danger of pure IP exploitation. “We literally did meetings where some studio head said, ‘Oh, it would be great if he fought crime with Ryan Reynolds,’” he said. (That conceit may have come to fruition in the form of “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.”) “This is a character who is very dear to us. Everyone we met when this first became a sensation was paying attention to the wrong thing by seeing it as IP.”
At one point, they fleshed out a proposal for a TV show. “In retrospect, it was pretty wackadoodle,” Fleischer-Camp said. “It wasn’t specifically adult but it was very fractured and vignette-based. Audiences may be more ready for something like that now.” Now, the movie is among the few sales titles seeking U.S. distribution at Telluride, where CAA and WME are jointly selling it as buyers consider where its real market lies.
“I know that my impulses are maybe overly niche, but I feel like this is a movie I want as many people as possible to see,” Fleischer-Camp said. “A mainstream distributor might look at it and think it’s too niche or just for kids. But I feel like the character has resonated with people at every possible age.”
In fact, the surprise of “Marcel” comes from its unexpected emotional sophistication. As IndieWire’s Kate Erbland wrote in her review, “It’s the cutest film about familial grief you’ll see all year, perhaps ever.” Adopting a mockumentary style, Fleischer-Camp plays a fictionalized version of himself behind the camera as he attempts to document the chatty shell roaming around a mostly empty Airbnb. Marcel’s only additional company comes from his sagacious grandmother, a gardening-obsessed shell voiced by Isabella Rossellini, and a trio of mute spiders that come and go. Eventually, Marcel’s real-life viral popularity becomes part of the plot, culminating in a “60 Minutes” episode where Leslie Stahl plays herself.
As Marcel wrestles with his loneliness while the rest of the world embraces his rambling insights, the movie delivers a bittersweet dose of whimsy that suggests “Adventure Time” by way of “Catfish” as it playfully navigates the boundaries of personal and public identities in the digital age. “Jenny and I both saw this rare opportunity to do something ebullient, fun, and funny that also surprises you with its depth,” Fleischer-Camp said.
In doing so, they also invented a new production method. Over the course of five years, the pair improvised dialogue for Marcel and developed animatics for each scene, which Fleischer-Camp and co-writer Nick Paley edited into a rough feature they could screen for peers. “The editing style of our movie is more influenced by radio than other movies,” Fleischer-Camp said. They then rewrote specific scenes as a more complete narrative took shape before shooting the live-action scenes where stop-motion characters would be inserted later on. “It was a very long runway,” Fleischer-Camp said.
They were aided by “Obvious Child” producer Elisabeth Holm, who helped put the project on the radar of non-profit Cinereach, which supported the movie across a glacial, multiyear pre-production process before it was completed earlier this year. The project was kept under wraps, Fleischer-Camp said, in part because they had no idea how long it would take. “We were making it in a way that nobody’s made a movie before,” he said, noting that the initial animation shoot was interrupted by the pandemic. “The timeline shifted quite a bit and I didn’t want to promise when the movie would come out. Also, we had a really clear vision of what we wanted, and it was not going to be helped by pressure from the internet.”
These days, Fleischer-Camp said he was wary of viral fame, despite the community that initially embraced their creation. ”It feels a lot less democratic and innocent,” he said. “I don’t know if it would take off virally now because the paths of the internet are so driven by sponsored content and algorithms. That took off very organically.”
Now that the movie is done, Fleischer-Camp and Slate said they were comfortable taking their time to sort out the next chapter. “We’ve built all these characters I love,” he said. “It’s a tricky feat to keep that alive. I hope that we get the opportunity to expand it at our own pace.”