When Robert Zemeckis set about making preparations for his adaptation of Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary Marwencol, he was immediately confronted with a potentially project-killing conundrum. This was back in 2013, almost a full decade after Zemeckis had made his first major foray into mo-cap-based, CG filmmaking with The Polar Express, a period of time during which he had released two more features in this style, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. All three met similar unfortunate fates (middling box office returns plus divisive critical receptions), with blame repeatedly leveled at the technology’s uncanny renderings of the human performers. Zemeckis was keenly aware of his new method’s potentially ruinous impediment, and so for most of the 2000s, he and his team at production company ImageMovers channeled their energy and resources into the task of perfecting digital motion capture, eventually partnering with Disney as “ImageMovers Digital” for the 2009 A Christmas Carol, surely the company’s most successful demonstration of their technology’s potential (allowing a handful of actors to convincingly play a number of dramatically different characters via this sort of expressive digital costuming), but not enough to hold the confidence of their co-producers. By the time Welcome to Marwen began development at Universal, Disney had dissolved the ImageMovers Digital partnership with Zemeckis, killing off a long-in-the-works Yellow Submarine remake in the process, and effectively bringing the filmmaker’s mo-cap pursuits to a close. Yet this new project called for something to this very effect — CG “plastic” doll characters bearing the fully expressive faces of the human cast — a bizarrely specific look to effectively realize that seemed exclusively suited to digital motion capture, a process the $50 million budget couldn’t accommodate. Zemeckis appeared to be over it as well, the mild response to his all-consuming passion project having eaten away at his resolve, and so when early tests of budget mo-cap work and digitally augmented doll joints came back looking like “a high end halloween costume,” the director turned toward despairing thoughts of A Christmas Carol’s production, quoted as saying “I can’t suffer that again on this movie. If this is all we can do, I just can’t do it like this.”
But Zemeckis never gave up on Welcome to Marwen, and after several years of tinkering and experimenting, he and the ImageMover team concocted a pretty elegant solution to the human/doll problem plaguing production (digitally mapping the actors’ eyes and mouths on to CG doll models undercuts the uncanny factor, turns out), and the film was released into theaters for the 2018 holiday season. It would go on to bomb harder than any of the mo-cap blockbusters (all of which turned a profit ultimately), bringing in a super sad $13 million for an over $30 million loss. A victim of its own premise (and Universal’s marketing team, who had a tough job on their hands, admittedly), Welcome to Marwen is a determinedly faithful adaptation of its documentary source material, retelling the harrowing yet triumphant story of photographer/miniatures artist Mark Hogancamp, the victim of a brutal, near-fatal hate crime whose art subsequently became a means of spiritual and mental rehabilitation. The sort of lo-fi nonfiction film that used to be the cornerstone of many a regional art house’s programming block back when you could still expect most cities to have one, Marwencol prioritized subject over aesthetic (its practical mix of mini DV and Super 8 cinematography has quite the liminal quality at this point), a tradeoff Jeff Malmberg could afford with Hogancamp as his star. Sort of the perfect documentary subject, Hogancamp is a totally candid interview and has a crafty, unashamed energy to go along with his stranger-than-fiction personal narrative, both of which benefit from the assurances of “reality” implied by the nonfiction designation. It’s exceedingly easy to see why this story would inspire such enthusiasm in Zemeckis, who, other than some narrative resequencing, recounts the events depicted in Marwencol very faithfully; after all, Hogancamp’s particular chosen medium and subject (still photographs of imagined World War II battles set in a fictional Belgian town) engage a number of the practices and principles of filmmaking while also walking the line between campy, pop entertainment and therapeutic reflexivity. But Zemeckis’ fidelity to the material scared off audiences who were baffled by the tone and put off by the film’s focus on a man playing with Barbies modeled after the women in his life, leading to the inevitable, disappointing rejection of what could be argued to be this director’s magnum opus.
Tying together the many eclectic threads running through his over-40-year career, Welcome to Marwen stars Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp, written here as a Gumpian innocent, unapologetically id-driven, but basically sweet and good intentioned. Brutalized by a group of neo-Nazis after drunkenly announcing himself as a crossdresser at a local bar, Hogancamp came out of the attack with no memory of his life prior, nor his ability to draw. A cartoonist pre-attack, Hogancamp’s artistic inclinations were newly satisfied in the medium of models and miniatures, and then, in turn, still photography, intuitively embracing these tools to create the world of Marwen, an ultra-detailed, isolated European township built around a church and a bar, and populated almost exclusively by women. Hogie just so happens to be Marwen’s sole male resident, and as such, the narrative scenarios that the human Hogancamp sets out for his plastic counterpart alternate between violent and horny, usually gory skirmishes with invading Nazis or romance novel-esque dalliances with the town’s numerous thirsty babes. Yet Zemeckis and Carell work to keep the tone in the CG sequences goofy and jokey, soundtracking a number of scenes to cornball ’80s rock (Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” making an unexpected appearance as a Nazi-killing anthem), the tonal clash suggesting Hogancamp’s deteriorating mental health in the real world as he sinks into pain med addiction and trauma-related depression. Another exploration of addiction and redemption a la 2012’s Flight, Welcome to Marwen is written knowingly (Zemeckis shares screenplay credit on this one with Edward Scissorhands screenwriter Caroline Thompson, an apt choice for this tonal register), with an awareness of the way in which one’s craft or art can be a liberating means of self-expression and a confining, debilitating obsession simultaneously. Zemeckis leaves his own connection to the material no secret, sneaking in authorial signature in the form of a time-traveling DeLorean at the film’s climax (the device by which the symbol of Hogancamp’s addiction is exorcized no less) that brings to mind the mischievous self-referentialism of buddy Spielberg’s Ready Player One. It’s convoluted and indulgent, certainly, but joyously, gleefully so, and executed without crowding out the film’s actual subject, leaving room to empathize and critique in equal measure (the incel edge of Hogoncamp’s project doesn’t go uncommented upon). At once Zemeckis’ most explicit declaration of auteurist intent and one of the few genuinely gonzo big studio releases in a decade or two, Cap’n Hogie and the dolls of Marwen will be deservedly celebrated as representatives of a more compelling branch of contemporary cinema that could’ve been.
Part of Robert Zemeckis: Movie Magician