To see the problems that Robert Zemeckis had with capturing the tone of the story for his new film Welcome to Marwen (2018), one doesn’t have to go further than the marketing. The film tells the harrowing true story of Mark Hogancamp, a man who was beaten nearly to death because he revealed he sometimes dressed in women’s clothing to a group of teenagers, and the world of Marwen he built to deal with the Post-traumatic Stress Disorder he suffered from after the attack. In real life, Hogancamp positions his figures and takes there pictures, but in the film, Zemeckis is able to use the magic of filmmaking to bring the figures to life in some very cool ways. However, he fails to capture the tone that would seem appropriate for the story that is being told.
Marwen captures the imagination but not the gravity of the story being told
Steve Carell plays Hogancamp and his action figure alter-ego Cap’n Hogie in the film. Carell is always good at juggling the dramatic and the comedy a story like this clearly entails, which Zemeckis attempts to utilize here. However, the film never goes in either direction quite enough. The humor never manages to garner much more than a throaty chuckle, and the drama leaves your eyes completely dry and the tissues unopened. This is mainly because the real people involved with the story play second fiddle to the action figures.
In the film, Hogancamp’s town is filled with women all based on people he knew in real life, including his new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann). With the exception of her and Roberta (Merritt Wever), the movie barely spends any time with the real-life counterparts to the women, and thus we barely see how they affected Hogancamp’s life. Anna (Gwendoline Christie) gets one scene where she delivers groceries and instructs Hogancamp on taking his medication properly and introduces an important idea that the film will end up focusing on. GI Julie (Janelle Monáe) only gets a brief flashback where she is helping Mark walk, which was shown in every trailer. Carlala (Eiza González) gets a few more scenes, and while they are short they at least give some insight into the relationship the women have in Mark’s life. This disconnect lends itself to part of the tonal inconsistency, as most of the real-life moments that could hit the emotional beats are interrupted by the action figures and usually comedic or over-the-top action scenes.
While those scenes did heavily feel tonally inconsistent with the seriousness of the subject matter, they are at least well executed. I haven’t looked into the process, but given Zemeckis’s The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007), and A Christmas Carol (2009) I assume it’s motion capture animation that was utilized for the figures. He has become very proficient with this style, and I think the figures and the sets they live in are well executed and look very good. There are some cool moments where the animations are left and the film reenters them into the real world. There is one shot of all of the girls and Cap’n Hoagie getting into the jeep that transitions to them being still figures as the camera pulls back revealing Mark dragging the figurines in the toy jeep by a long pole. Moments like this at least make you appreciate the spectacle Zemeckis creates, but also reminds that he may be having too much fun with that aspect of this story.
The mental health aspects of this film are definitely mishandled. Actually, they’re barely addressed for the most part, as Zemeckis chooses to focus on the escapist nature of Mark’s self-prescribed rehabilitation through his art installation. There is a wealth of opportunity for a prestige-level story that would garner Oscar love, but Zemeckis never captures any of that feeling. Instead, Welcome to Marwen is a moderately entertaining film with solid performances that never really pushes in any of the directions it offers enough to make it memorable or worthy of more than a casual watch. Welcome to Maren earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.