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'Marcel the Shell With Shoes On' is going to make you cry. Let it

Dean Fleischer Camp, the director of the year's most heartwarming film, told TODAY he hopes audiences leave the theater "a little kinder, a little more willing to be gentle with one other."

Upon seeing Marcel, the one-inch tall mollusk hero of A24's endearing and irresistible new movie "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On," a few words might easily spring to mind.

Small, and all of its synonyms (though especially "teensy weensy"). Adorable. Cute — actually, make that super cute.

But director Dean Fleischer Camp wants audiences to go beyond Marcel's exterior, and really listen to what he has to say. "I feel like I have my most interesting friend who has two degrees from M.I.T. but happens to be 4'11", and people ask him, 'What's it like being so short?' I'm like, get over it!" Camp told TODAY, laughing.

“I want people to get to know him the way I know him,” he said.

Marcel the shell sets forth.
Marcel the shell sets forth.Courtesy A24

Camp would know about Marcel's depths better than almost anyone. For the past seven years, Camp has worked with collaborators Jenny Slate (who voices Marcel) and writer Nick Paley to bring this character to the screen, an arduous process that required a crew of 500 technicians and filmmakers, including puppeteers, stop-motion animators, and multiple versions of Marcel.

While most audiences met Marcel through a viral video released in 2010 on YouTube (which has 32 million views as of 2022), the character was actually born while Camp and Slate were at a wedding.

Marcel astonished audiences with his unique one-liners about his existence. Though Marcel's voice trembles, he is confident and strangely proud of showing off his perspective a one-incher to us big humans. This writer's favorite Marcel-ism? "Guess what I use as a pen? … A pen, but it takes the whole family."

After the success of the video and its successors, Camp and Slate were approached by film studios to bring the little shell to the big screen. But the studio's scaled-up visions weren't always in line with Marcel's ethos, all about slowing down and finding beauty and wisdom in a perspective you might not have considered prior.

Still, Camp says, it was difficult to say no. "It was hard from the perspective, 12 years ago, of a struggling editor who wants to be a director. The studio is offering to make a movie," Camp said. But it was "so obvious" to him that some offers weren't interested in him and Slate as a creative team (like pitch, a buddy comedy featuring John Cena teaming up with Marcel).

But Marcel did make his way to the movies — and the final product continues the legacy of the videos, while answering some of the big questions about Marcel's world, like how he gets around (answer: in a tennis ball car) and his biggest fear (answer: the laundry machine).

Which brings us back to Marcel's line about using a pen with the help of a whole family. In the movie, audiences meet the family Marcel had referred to, a tribe that includes creatures made of shells, pistachios, Cheetos, and yes, tampons.

Marcel's eccentric family sitting down for a night of TV.
Marcel's eccentric family sitting down for a night of TV.Courtesy A24

Within the mythology of the movie, Marcel's family disappeared after the couple who lived in his house had a fight. Marcel and his grandma, Connie (Isabella Rosselini), have been alone for two years, watching "60 Minutes," gardening, and trying to keep busy so as to not be overwhelmed by grief.

"It can be really easy to define yourself by a really difficult loss. The movie says there's value to mourning those losses but there's also hope and new life, and it's all part of this large, ongoing symphony," Camp said.

Camp plays a director named Dean in the midst of a divorce who moves into the house, now an Airbnb (or, in Marcel's world, a "computer hotel"), and meets Marcel. He starts uploading videos of Marcel onto the internet — spurring a far less quaint version of internet stardom than his original YouTube debut in 2010.

Lesley Stahl really appeared in "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On," playing herself.
Lesley Stahl really appeared in "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On," playing herself.Courtesy A24

"I was always pretty adamant that (in the movie) no one's gonna bat an eye at the fact that he's a talking shell or the talking shells exist. I always pointed to the the Muppet movies or 'Sesame Street' as a reference," Camp said. "The Muppets are just treated as normal parts of the world."

Dean eventually agrees to help Marcel try to track down his family, a journey that leads to Marcel meeting with his ultimate icon, the Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes."

One of Camp's favorite lines in the movie was improvised during Marcel's interview with Stahl. Stahl asks Marcel how long it's been since he's seen his family; Slate, as Marcel, waxes poetic about the seasons changing. Dean then translates succinctly by saying, "Two years," a line that elicited laughs during the premiere in New York.

Marcel and Dean Fleischer Camp.
Marcel and Dean Fleischer Camp.Courtesy A24

"I came up with that one on set," Camp said, though he said it's difficult to track down the other origins of the lines. "I designed this process to be a totally egoless collaboration. What's great, and also weird, about that is you kind of don't know who wrote what and who came up with what."

Jenny Slate, Nick Paley, Dean Fleischer Camp and Isabella Rosellini on set.
Jenny Slate, Nick Paley, Dean Fleischer Camp and Isabella Rosellini on set.Courtesy A24

Other moments from filming, however, stand out with precise clarity. Camp was debating whether to use a particular house as a filming location — it was inconvenient for a number of reasons. But on the nightstand was a collection of Philip Larkin poetry, with a page dogeared to the poem that Nonna Connie reads in a pivotal scene.

It felt a bit like a message. An uncanny miracle, kind of like a talking shell.

For all its laughs, "Marcel" is really a meditation on loss and grief, and making a life despite it. "I wanted to make a movie that expresses and also celebrates, but not in an idealized or corny way, the fact that you can't enjoy the happy ending without having gone through and felt the emotions of your losses, and felt that pain," he said.

Think of "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" as a tour, not only though Marcel's world but through his frame of mind. It's one that Camp, after seven years of making the movie, can't quite shake. "He inspires me all the time," Camp said.

He hopes people leave the theater changed by Marcel as he has been. "

"I hope they walk out of the theater a little kinder, a little more willing to be gentle with one another, and a little more willing to extend understanding to someone they might not immediately understand," Camp said.