I assume the creative team behind Welcome to Marwen operated with the best intentions. The 2018 film is adapted from Jeff Malmberg’s well-respected 2010 documentary, Marwencol, which centered on Mark Hogancamp and the therapeutic value he derived from developing a miniature world. In 2000, Hogancamp was brutally assaulted by a group of men in a hate crime driven by his admission that he sometimes wore women’s clothing. The physical effects were devastating, and Hogancamp didn’t have the money necessary to get proper treatment for the post-traumatic stress that further hindered his recovery. So he developed his own form of art therapy, staging scenes with the dolls in his tiny town and shooting striking photographs that offer visual echoes of the most devastating wartime pictures. Only the most hateful, bigoted individuals could see Hogancamp’s real story as anything other than moving and inspiring.
For the fiction film rendering, director Robert Zemeckis spins the hard reality of Hogancamp’s story into a fresh excuse to deploy special effects gimmickry. Once a filmmaker of cheerful cleverness, Zemeckis became hopelessly besotted with technological boundary-pushing decades ago. At least as far back as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, released in 1988, Zemeckis has seemingly made the possibility of a new advancement in visual storytelling an overly important criterion in his professional selections. On increasingly rare occasions, the innovation was in place to serve the story. Too often, the freshly invented movie magic appeared to be the only element that ensnared Zemeckis’s restless interest.
In the case of Welcome to Marwen, the infatuation with surface is especially callous. The struggles of Mark Hogancamp (played in the film by Steve Carell) are handled with soulless efficiency so Zemeckis can get to visual tomfoolery of depicting the imagined drama in the model world as if it’s Toy Story with ostensibly more serious underpinnings. Carell and a small band of talented actresses (including Diane Kruger, Merritt Weaver, and Janelle Monáe) portray the living dolls through motion-capture performances. Most of the actresses also play the real-life counterparts who theoretically inspire the characters Mark develops, a conceit that smacks of cursory construction, a wink at the audience rather than someone that deepens the understanding of Mark and the support group that’s developed around him.
Every element of the film is grotesquely glib, from the depiction of Mark’s anxiety attacks as explosions of violence straight out of a Samuel Fuller movie to the intrusive score by Alan Silvestri, which echoes the jabbering whimsy of Danny Elfman’s mimeographed music for various Tim Burton efforts. If Zemeckis contained the hackneyed dialogue and veneer of phoniness to the scenes of animated model figures while grounding the other scenes in tough reality, an argument in favor of the film’s arch falsehoods could be made. Instead, the entirety of the narrative is molded in plastic.
I only made it thirty-five minutes into Welcome to Marwen.
Previously in The Unwatchables…
— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
— The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman
— The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott
— Vice, directed by Adam McKay
— Savages, directed by Oliver Stone