Director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Beowulf) is out of the Steven Speilberg stable. And it shows. He certainly has forged a career (a long and impressive one) out of making a films which have a certain flair and look to them in which they are easily identifiable as his. You certainly do not have much problems identifying Zemeckis films. Someone who started off as being known as a special effects whiz, he has taken that along with him in the films that he makes.
Back in 1988 he made a combo live-action/animated film called Who Framed Roger Rabbit which signaled what was to come. It was a film thought of as ground breaking when it came out 30 years ago. He then followed that up (over 15 years later) with a series of films that cemented his visual style in The Polar Express, Beowulf and The Christmas Carol. What has been similar about these visually arresting films is that he has demonstrated that he can weave a thoughtful story around great special effects or visuals. He once again goes back to that well with his latest film – the quirky Welcome to Marwen.
Once again he mixes live-action with animation in telling the story of a man who suffered a horrific physical attack using a non-traditional style of therapy to allow him to advance in his effort at recovery. Artist Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell – Foxcatcher, Little Miss Sunshine) is a good person. He worked as an illustrator of war books. The only mark against him is that he likes to drink. One night he is out at a bar doing just that he lets it slip to the wrong bunch of men that he likes to wear women’s shoes. Somehow offended by that, the men lay a savage beating on Mark and leave him on the brink of death.
Once Mark regains consciousness he realizes that he remembers nothing about his adult life. With the hope of having it unlock his memory, Mark decides to create a whole world using dolls. In his house he painstakingly builds a World War II era Belgian village. He calls it Marwen. Taking on an alter-ego-like personality is Cap’n Hogie (Carell), a high heel wearing fighter pilot. All the women in his life now exist as dolls in Marwen. They include his new neighbour Nicol (Leslie Mann – Knocked Up, This is 40), the Russian Anna (Gwendoline Christie – from television’s Game of Thrones) who takes care of him and even Roberta (Merritt Wever – Michael Clayton, Birdman), who works at the hobby store Mark frequents. All these characters/dolls work with Hogie in an effort to defeat the Nazis.
Reading that you might think it all sounds very high concept and little bit of a mess. Unfortunately for Zemeckis and film fans it is more of the latter than the former. A case of trying to do too much in a short time. Obviously Zemeckis was very “into” making this unusual film, so much so that it blinded him to the inherent problems in the ambitious undertaking. Being ambitious is not a problem, but making a film just because you want to turn human actors into plastic doll like things on screen is.
Story and character development seems to have been shoved firmly into the background here with the primary focus being the visuals. The result is a film which is underwhelming. It looks great, but there is nothing storywise to sink your teeth into. To lock onto. Zemeckis seems to have forgotten that the primary reason to make a film is to tell a story not to dazzle with the way it looks.
That is too bad because ironically Welcome to Marwen is based on a true story about a real man. Obviously it has to be dramatized somewhat in order to adapt it to the film world. That is not the problem, though. Quite the opposite actually. Its foibles can all be linked back to decisions made by the director. A film with this strange and delicate a story would work under the guidance of someone a little more subtle and focused on the psychological aspects of it. It is a story which begs for us to connect with Mark. The fact that Zemeckis never really allows us inside of what makes the damaged man tick never gives us the chance to care about him. It is a tale which begs for nuance and less of a focus on how it looks. Its heart is never given the space to grow upon us.