Film Review – Welcome to Marwen
Welcome to Marwen
Robert Zemeckis, a director responsible for some of the most beloved big budget film experiences in cinema. He started with fun and subversive comedies before moving into creating some of the most indelible movies ever. And over that time, he has created a reputation for using cutting edge special effects that still have a heart to them. Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Flight, Castaway, Contact, The Walk. It’s a litany of mainstream entertainment that also deals with character and emotion wrapped in a highly entertaining shell.
However, almost 20 years ago now, along with the likes of James Cameron, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, he was committed to the future of digital effects. They all saw a future in the recent 3-D experience. So, he became instrumental in either directing or producing movies that leap with both feet into the uncanny valley. Beowulf, Monster House, Jim Carrey‘s Christmas Carol, The Polar Express, to varying degrees of success this chapter of his career seems like it’s left a lot of audiences cold. These mo-cap CGI extravaganzas are the very definition of CGI faces feeling less real than less realistic animations. His latest foray into this realm is the new film Welcome to Marwen.
Steve Carrell stars as Mark Hogancamp. He is a photographer/artist who lives a hermetic existence in his small home. He has suffered a major brain trauma where one night a group of neo-Nazi types beat him almost to death outside a bar and left him for dead. His life was saved by a waitress from the bar, but after lengthy rehabilitation, he is still left with a very altered personality and partial amnesia. He can’t remember much of his life before the attack. He can’t draw any more like he used to due to lack of some fine motor skills. He can speak and reason, but he has trouble with many day to day actions and is living the extreme version of PTSD. His one outlet is toy town he created in his backyard he calls Marwen. Using toy dolls and models he creates elaborate dioramas where he tells stories with still photographs.
It is in these imaginary scenarios that Zemeckis unleashes his CGI obsession as Mark imagines himself as Captain Hogie, a WW2 hero surrounded by beautiful warrior women that resemble the various ladies in his life. This imaginary team routinely fights Nazis that keep invading Marwen. The dolls come to life in the guise of Janelle Monae, Gwendonline Christie (Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones), Merrit Weaver (Denise from The Walking Dead), Eiza González, and Diane Kruger as the evil fairy in charge of the attacking Nazis. In Marwen Mark gets to be the brave hero that he doesn’t get to be in real life. When Leslie Mann as Nicol moves in across the street and takes an interest in his art, he starts to open up slightly to the outside world.
This is a true story that was previously covered in a renowned documentary Marwencol. Much like he did with The Walk, Zemeckis is taking a real life incident that was portrayed in a popular documentary and remaking it as a CGI fantasy. So this sometimes begs the question, why remake it? In the case of The Walk, the 3-D IMAX imagery helped to place the audience up on top of the Twin Towers themselves. But here, the CGI story feels like it diminishes the real life incident. This is a story of a man using art to express and work through trauma that he couldn’t communicate himself.
In art there is a concept called closure. Think of the act of reading. The reader is actually doing most of the work for the art to be realized. The words are just two dimensional figures and yet whole stories are created in the reader’s head. The same can apply to painting and photography. The still image captures a moment and the observer does the work of filling in the moments before and after or the things not shown. In the film, when Nicol is curious about Marwen and asks Mark about the town, her curiosity is the magic. And the same goes for us. When we see Mark’s still images we are drawn into his world. We get to do some of the work of trying to communicate with him. But in this film, the story is spoon fed to us. The abstract is made overt. The motion capture images of turning these actors into animated dolls may be technically well done, but somehow it feels less magical than a real guy posing simple dolls.
Also, though not to be too critical of the filmmakers since I’m convinced their hearts are in the right place, but this movie looks for us to be overly sympathetic to a white man who got beat up once. Every day on the news nowadays we are seeing minorities abused by authorities or simply shot by police. Neo-nazis in real life attack people of color. But in Hollywood whitewashing fashion we are meant to spend all of our empathy on yet another white guy. Don’t get me wrong, this man suffered real trauma and it is sad. No one should have to deal with that. But stories like this and worse are happening all around us and we’re becoming numb to it in the real world. Ideally we can feel for this guy AND the real abuses as well. But in the mean-time maybe films could find a bit more nuance.
There is technical skill here. The special effects are impressive. And Mark Hogancamp’s story is interesting and sad. Overall this movie is pretty good, but misses greatness by a long way. Maybe if Zemeckis would dial back the motion capture obsession and deal with real humans more, audiences might get back on board.