How a YouTube Sensation Became a Movie—12 Years Later
When the first Marcel the Shell short went viral, it was a bit of an accident. As cocreator Jenny Slate told Seth Meyers this week on Late Night, her then partner Dean Fleischer-Camp showed the stop-motion film they made at a comedy show in 2010, then threw it up online at the request of a cast member who wanted to show his ailing mom. It became one of YouTube’s earliest sensations—”Gangnam Style” was still two years away, after all—and now, more than a decade later, its hero has his own film, one about the perils of the internet that made him famous.
Twelve years isn’t long in the grand scheme of things, but in online time, it’s practically an eon. It’s also long enough that Slate and Fleischer-Camp have been able to gain some perspective on Marcel’s rise to fame. “It’s so weird because I, of course, believe in it 100 percent, but sometimes even I can’t put my finger on it,” says Slate. She thinks Marcel’s strength lies in the juxtaposition of his size and his confidence but also admits that “people like to project their own feelings of how small they can feel onto him.”
And so Marcel remained beloved, even as “Gangnam Style” came and went. Fleischer-Camp says he and Slate once went on what he calls “a water bottle tour” of LA, stopping at all the studios to talk about Marcel after he went viral. At the time, Fleischer-Camp says, “there was a lot of interest in grafting Marcel onto a more familiar tentpole franchising template.” The pair knew when they left those meetings that they didn’t want Marcel to go the Stuart Little or Minions route. (They are, however, doing a line of merch with the film’s studio, A24, to promote Marcel.) Ultimately, Fleischer-Camp thinks their commitment to independence paid off.
“The thing that’s special to me about Marcel is not necessarily that he’s so tiny,” he explains. “It’s the fact that he doesn’t care about how tiny he is. He’s got iron willpower and self-respect, and he’s so self-possessed.”
Marcel’s cinematic world is simultaneously itty-bitty and comparatively enormous. In the film, he lives with his Nana Connie (the amazing Isabella Rossellini) in a colonial house once occupied by not only their whole shell and shell-adjacent family and neighborhood, but also a human married couple. The people never noticed Marcel and his buddies, who built a thriving community of houseplant homes, bread beds, and meals made up of bits of whatever food they could scrounge up. One day, the married couple got into a big fight and all of Marcel’s family, save his Nana, fled to the man’s sock drawer for safety. In a quick bid to leave the house, he threw the contents of all his drawers into a bag and fled, never to return. Marcel’s family went with him, lost to the winds of Los Angeles.
That’s not to say that Marcel is hopeless, because he’s not. Marcel the Shell finds him and his Nana growing a thriving garden, developing ingenious methods of food collection, and even keeping up with their favorite program, 60 Minutes. Fleischer-Camp says that, in a way, his creation’s drive has inspired even him. “When an obstacle gets thrown at him, he doesn’t see the impossibility of overcoming it,” Fleischer-Camp explains.