STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
"Marcel The Shell With Shoes On" tells the story of a tiny shell who searches for his long-lost family. He's voiced by Jenny Slate and rendered using stop-motion animation. It's a feature-length movie based on a series of viral YouTube shorts. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about "Marcel The Shell With Shoes On" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
THOMPSON: Joining us today is Greta Johnsen, host of the Nerdette podcast from WBEZ. Hi, Greta.
GRETA JOHNSEN, BYLINE: Hey, Stephen. I'm so excited to be here.
THOMPSON: I am so excited to have you. So the character of Marcel the Shell began as a three-minute YouTube short that went viral back in 2010. In it, we meet a shell who talks about his life mostly via a series of one-liners about how tiny he is. Marcel was created by Jenny Slate and director Dean Fleischer Camp. In the short, Marcel is interviewed by Camp, who stays off-screen. Additional shorts came out in 2011 and 2014, and Marcel even got two book spinoffs.
Now Marcel the Shell is the subject of a 90-minute movie. It's also a mock documentary, and this time, Camp appears onscreen as a filmmaker who discovers Marcel while living in an Airbnb. As Camp interviews Marcel for a YouTube short of his own, we learn that Marcel was once part of a thriving community of shells, but a traumatic event left Marcel alone in the house with his grandmother, Connie, voiced by Isabella Rossellini. With the help of their own viral video, Marcel and his interviewer set out to reunite Marcel with his lost family and teach us all a little something about community in the process. "Marcel The Shell With Shoes On" is in theaters now.
Greta Johnsen, I'm going to start with two questions.
THOMPSON: One, did you come into this as a pre-existing fan of Marcel the Shell? And, two, what did you think of the movie?
JOHNSEN: OK. Well, the answer to the first question is yes, absolutely. I can't tell you, like, the exact moment that I first saw a Marcel the Shell video, but I definitely feel like I have internalized a lot of, like, those weird one-liners from those original movies. There's actually one even - I think it's in the second movie that I find myself thinking about kind of a lot - like, maybe almost on a daily basis - where Marcel is complaining about this dog napping next to him on the couch.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON, TWO")
JENNY SLATE: (As Marcel the Shell) All he cares about is treats, treats and snoozing. Look at him. Treats and snoozing, snoozing and treats - that's it.
JOHNSEN: Treats and snoozing, snoozing and treats. That's the good life right there.
JOHNSEN: You know? I just love it so much.
THOMPSON: That's what we all dream of all day long.
JOHNSEN: Exactly. Like, what could be better - treats and snoozing? So, yeah, the question what I thought of the movie - I mean, in this day and age of the year of our Lord 2022, did the world need a full-length Marcel the Shell movie? I don't know. Am I glad it exists? Yes. Like, does my heart feel fuller after having seen it? Absolutely. So, like, I guess to that end, we can call it a win, you know?
THOMPSON: Yeah. And I agree with you. I was a little surprised that it was released to theaters. I'm surprised that it came out in theaters in the summer, I guess counterprogramming against your "Top Gun: Mavericks"...
THOMPSON: ...And your Elvis biopic. This is a considerably smaller movie. I'm a little surprised...
THOMPSON: ...That it wasn't released to streaming, where it seems like it could really find kind of a cult home. I'm not sure that I would, like, pack up my family and spend the money to go out for a night at the movies for a movie this tiny and contained. But it is sweet, and it does have a fair bit to say about community. And, you know, you're spending time with this adorable character. I did not necessarily have a long relationship with Marcel the Shell, certainly not going back to 2010. I first...
JOHNSEN: You don't think about snoozing and treats every day like I do, Stephen?
THOMPSON: I mean, now I do.
THOMPSON: But, you know, I kind of found the character secondhand through my partner's sister, who does an absolutely uncanny Jenny Slate as Marcel the Shell impersonation - like, really remarkable.
JOHNSEN: That's adorable.
THOMPSON: So I kind of found it, you know, secondhand but then found it adorable - not necessarily something that I think about all the time kind of the way maybe you do.
THOMPSON: But it is a sweet film. And I think there is a real place for smaller movies and movies that have a little bit less kind of grand filmmaking ambition, though this was not necessarily an easy movie to make. Stop-motion animation...
THOMPSON: ...Takes a really long time, and this movie did take quite a bit of time to put together. You know, it's based on all this improvised Jenny Slate as Marcel dialogue that they kind of then stitched together into a script. So it actually was a fair bit of work for a movie that feels so small but deeply heartwarming.
JOHNSEN: Yes. It's interesting 'cause you keep using, like, small, contained. And, I mean, it literally is, right? It has to be 'cause it's about this tiny shell. But, you know, I think especially to think about, like, all the worldbuilding that had to be involved with a film like this, like, it is pretty interesting to think about, you know?
THOMPSON: Yeah. And, like, we get a lot of the kind of Rube Goldberg contraptions that are required for Marcel the Shell to go about his daily life, especially without a community of shells to kind of team up and do the work of living in the world as someone that tiny.
THOMPSON: You know, I do think it's very sweet.
JOHNSEN: Well, and what I find really fascinating - I don't know if you agree with this. But, like, to a certain extent, Marcel in general and the film, too, should kind of feel twee. But somehow there is - there's still, like, an existential defiance and, like, joy to it. And, you know, Marcel even, like, has these biting lines now and then. There's, like, just enough edge to his character that just makes it really fun to spend time with him, I think. You know?
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, in my notes for this movie, like, really early on, I just kind of scribbled down, dime store Wes Anderson...
THOMPSON: ...As that kind of overarching aesthetic of the film. You're right. I do think it gets a little bit deeper than that. There are these occasional moments of real poignancy. There's a scene in this movie where, you know, Marcel and Dean have teamed up to make, you know, one of the many metacommentaries in this movie.
THOMPSON: They team up to make a Marcel short, which goes viral. And they're trying to recruit the public to help Marcel find his missing family. And they're looking at the comments, and they're trying to find clues. They're looking for help from the public, and all they're getting is affirmation. Marcel is so cute. Marcel is so sweet. I love Marcel. I stan Marcel. And Marcel kind of turns ruefully to Dean and says, well, this is nice, but this isn't a community. It's an audience. And I thought that was a very powerful moment, and it kind of just had me thinking about the difference between the two and how often we mistake one for the other. And I found that very profound...
THOMPSON: ...In this movie that seems so, so small.
JOHNSEN: Yes. There was another moment that caught my attention. And I forget exactly the context - maybe you can help me remember - where there's something happening where, like, Marcel needs to - is it to light a match or something? And Dean won't help. And he kind of cites like, journalistic - like, no.
JOHNSEN: I have to, like, stay distant because...
THOMPSON: Wanting to keep his distance.
JOHNSEN: Right, because I can't alter the story, you know? And that's, like, a thing that we talk about in journalism. And I forget exactly what it is Marcel says. But it's sort of like, really? At the cost of, like, actually helping me, you're going to just keep standing there and watching me try to do this. It's just like - I thought that was just another really perfect moment that kind of exemplifies - you know, there's maybe arguably not as much depth as you might like from a film about community, but there are some really amazing little moments in there that are like, oh, OK, we're doing this, you know?
THOMPSON: Yeah, I wasn't expecting a piece of biting commentary on journalism.
JOHNSEN: Yeah, exactly. Like, oh, wow, cool.
THOMPSON: Well, and, you know, when we talk about the meta-ness (ph) of this story, the more you kind of know about the background of the filmmakers, the more there are kind of layers of poignancy to it. I mean, there's a whole subplot where the reason Dean, who is the actual director of this movie and the director in the movie...
JOHNSEN: You're doing great.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Thank you. It is more complicated than you would think from a movie this straightforward.
JOHNSEN: Yeah, you're doing a really good job.
THOMPSON: The reason Dean is in this Airbnb is because he is going through a breakup. He's going through a separation. His arc is kind of recovering from the loss of this relationship. Well, Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate - when you look at the fact that they were together when they made the shorts but divorced in 2016, that adds a certain layer of poignancy to it because you don't just have the metacommentary of them making shorts that go viral, but you're also documenting the dissolution of the romantic partnership that is part of this creative partnership, and that also lends an air of poignancy.
JOHNSEN: Yeah. I mean, obviously, I don't know either of them. I would love to be Jenny Slate's friend. It has yet to happen. Hi, Jenny, if you're listening. But I found that fascinating. I think it must be a testament to the quality of their original marriage that the fact that - you know, even though it fell apart, they were still willing to work on something together because this isn't one of those things where you would just, like, show up and phone it in, you know? Like, there is a level of intimacy between Marcel and the director that - if you weren't ready to go there with it, I imagine it would be very difficult to make this movie, you know?
THOMPSON: Yeah. You know, it's easy to kind of dwell on the format here, which is theatrical movie release in the summer of 2022 versus three-minute short that you watch on your phone on YouTube and then kind of quote to your friends.
JOHNSEN: And, like, maybe you're high, and it's cool.
THOMPSON: Quite possibly. But this is also definitely - like, the screening I was at to see this movie - I was, A, not high and, B, near a group of kids who were watching this movie as a kids' movie.
THOMPSON: What do you see as the life of this movie? Do you see it as a theatrical release that people go to, or do you see it as a streaming movie that people watch, A, with their kids, B, while high or, C, both?
JOHNSEN: It's a great question. I mean, I think you're right that it doesn't - I mean, especially, you know, in summer blockbuster season, it seems like kind of a strange time to do a movie like this that isn't, like, a huge, splashy release. But then again, I mean, when is not a great time for kind of a quiet, feel-good movie? You know, you could argue, especially with the way our attentions are these days, that that's kind of - like, how lovely to be able to just sit in a dark room and enjoy these characters together. It's interesting you mentioned seeing kids there because, yeah, like, is it a kids' movie? I'm not - I'm sure kids could get something out of it, but it seems a lot more complicated to me than that. I don't remember seeing a lot of kids at the screening I went to. It's an interesting question.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, it's paced a little differently from a lot of kids' entertainment. And it is...
THOMPSON: ...Delving into themes of grief and familial loss. In ways - I mean, a lot of kids' movies - I mean, Pixar has...
JOHNSEN: I mean, "Toy Story" - yeah. I was going to say, yeah. Like, we...
THOMPSON: Yeah. Pixar has made bank making kids' movies about loss and grief. I'm just very curious to see how this movie unfolds, like how it does in theaters versus how much it catches on in streaming and kind of how it finds an audience over time because I think it's sweet. And I hope people find it.
JOHNSEN: Yeah. Yeah, it's super-sweet. I mean, there's also that gorgeous scene where Dean kind of tries to show Marcel how big the world really is, you know, because to Marcel, even the house is huge, right? So...
JOHNSEN: And they, like, drive up into the hills and look out. And I just thought it was really beautiful. There were just a couple of really nice - you know, I already used the word existential, but, like, I keep coming back to it because I do think there's a quality to Marcel and there's still a purity also that just really resonates really strongly with me.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And I think the nicest thing I can say about this movie, among many nice things, is that you do look at the world a little bit differently when you step out of the theater. And I think that in and of itself can be a useful metric for whether a movie is worth seeing.
JOHNSEN: Yeah, for sure. I have a question for you.
JOHNSEN: Does it bother you that Marcel doesn't have arms?
THOMPSON: I mean, I did have a few mechanical questions, a few logistical questions.
THOMPSON: How did Marcel get the string attached to the mixer...
THOMPSON: ...All the way out...
THOMPSON: ...To the tree branch? There were some Rube Goldberg devices that would seem to have required the help of even more than a large number of shells.
THOMPSON: But it is a testament to the film's sweetness that I didn't dwell on it too, too much.
JOHNSEN: Yeah. Yeah, I do think it's like - and I don't know. I mean, I think there's also a really nice space for suspended disbelief these days, too...
JOHNSEN: ...Right? - where, like, you don't have to think about it too hard because it's just lovely. And that's great, you know?
THOMPSON: Yeah. I don't want to be Neil deGrasse Tyson.
JOHNSEN: Right, right, right, right, right.
THOMPSON: Like, how did he put his shoes on?
JOHNSEN: Yeah. Yeah. This tennis ball situation is not effective.
THOMPSON: Not sustainable in any way. All right, well, we want to know what you think about "Marcel The Shell With Shoes On." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Greta Johnsen, thanks so much for being here.
JOHNSEN: Thank you so much. I'm going to go take a snooze and eat some treats.
THOMPSON: Exactly. What could be better? Of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Anna Isaacs and Mike Katzif and was edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all tomorrow.
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