Review – Bizarre drama ‘Welcome to Marwen’ piles on the whimsy

Patrick Wilson is the main host of the weekly Popcorn Muncher Podcast and also writes as a regular guest contributor to The Popcorn Muncher.

Poster for 2019 drama Welcome to Marwen

Genre: Drama
Certificate: 12
UK Release Date: 1st January 2019
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Caroline Thompson, Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Gwendoline Christie, Eiza González, Neil Jackson
Synopsis: A photographer recovering from a violent beating and preparing to face the assailants in court retreats into the titular fantasy world, inhabited by the dolls that feature in his acclaimed pictures.

 

 

The new project from motion capture fan Robert Zemeckis, Welcome to Marwen tells the true story of artist Mark Hogancamp, played here by Steve Carell. Hogancamp is a talented illustrator who was nearly beaten to death outside a bar by a group of men after letting them know he enjoyed cross-dressing. After being unable to illustrate due to his near-total memory loss, Mark begins to use figurines based on Second World War soldiers and Barbie-esque dolls to represent the people in his life and create photographic drama in the titular model village.

Zemeckis’s clear interest here is the scale models used in the photography, which are brought to life using the motion capture technology Zemeckis has made use of in several projects in the past few years, including The Polar Express and Beowulf. Unfortunately, due to focusing so heavily on this, the real meat of the story of Mark Hogancamp and the defiance of his art is somewhat lost in proceedings.

Whimsy completely takes over, with the war reenactments playing up the pulp fiction style of Hogancamp’s photography and feeling akin to a GI Joe toy commercial. While the sequences are fun overall and full of gorgeously realised animation, it has the side effect of robbing the grit from Hogancamp’s photography. There’s some real darkness and brutal honesty in his work that goes nearly unexamined here, besides one sequence involving Cap’n Hogie – his surrogate figure in Marwen – being brutally whipped by a Nazi soldier that ends up feeling tonally out of place.

The live-action sections of Welcome to Marwen retain a slight haze of fantasy throughout, in the way characters behave around Mark and care for him, but the real inherent human kindness shines through. It’s not handled in a totally competent manner, but the acceptance Hogancamp’s peers have of his personal life choices and use of their likeness in his art is heart-warming to say the least. The cast are all particularly fun and their performances are good. It’s just a shame the film doesn’t have a good screenplay to back them up.

That’s the real issue with the movie – how awfully on the nose it is. There are moments in which characters verbally announce their internal feelings in the most heavy-handed way possible. This works okay within the fantastical world of Marwen but, in the live action segments, it’s bizarre. When the movie makes an awkward reference to arguably Zemeckis’s most well-received work, Back to the Future, it just serves to remind you how much better he can be with the sharper screenplay that all three of those movies had.

However, despite all of my criticism, I can’t say I had a bad time with the film. Hogancamp has a remarkable story and turned adversity into imagination and strength. That key tenet survives the pitfalls that damage the rest of the production. I may have not enjoyed every moment, but the good outweighs the bad.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

For a more comprehensive view of Hogancamp’s art and him as a person, watch the documentary Marwencol. If you want a breezier, whimsical and fantastical retelling of his story, then Welcome to Marwen does enough right to be worth a watch and will hopefully encourage viewers to take a look at his art.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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