I’m not usually one to criticize right off the bat. I’d prefer to let a piece of media speak for itself and then compare opinions with others after I consume it. But watching the trailer for “Welcome to Marwen” filled me with deep distrust and apprehension, something a movie trailer hadn’t made me feel in a long time.
“Welcome to Marwen,” a new film directed by Robert Zemeckis set to be released in December, aims to tell the story of Mark Hogancamp. The film takes inspiration from the award-winning and highly acclaimed 2010 documentary “Marwencol,” which first told the story of Hogancamp’s life. Based on the trailer, “Welcome to Marwen” seems to remove so much of what made the documentary compelling, glossing over the complexities of a real man’s life.
In 2000, five men beat Hogancamp nearly to death, causing severe brain damage that erased the memories of his adult life. Unable to draw or work, and cut off from licensed physical therapy because of lack of funds, Hogancamp began to create a miniaturized fantasy town set in Belgium during World War II, using action figures to act out scenes in the town of Marwencol.
This therapy through craft allowed Hogancamp to achieve some control over his life and to make sense of the violent attack that irrevocably changed him. The characters in his town are fictionalized versions of members of his real community. They’re neighbors and co-workers who are transformed from waitresses and friends to resistance fighters and cyborg witches. The documentary culminates in an art show of Hogancamp’s photography of his fictional town, and it leaves open questions of his future as he becomes more well-known, his fragile therapeutic town opened up to the criticism of the world that hurt him in the first place.
“Marwencol,” the documentary that inspired the new film, changed my life. In fact, a review I wrote of it was part of the application that I sent to become a writer for The Daily Californian’s arts & entertainment department. It presents a beautiful and complicated story, one filled with twists and melancholic meditations on what it takes to heal, to depend on others and to exist at all. Every glance it provides into Hogancamp’s mind is part biography, part slice of life and part psychological drama. His growth is met with new insights about himself, and the stakes continue to mount as his interior world and his exterior life grow and gain attention.
Seeing Hogancamp and hearing the story from his own point of view gives form and color to the film. The beauty and power of the documentary are in its constant oscillation between what is camp and what is sincere, what is performed and what is essential, what is loving another and what is loving oneself.
That’s why watching the trailer for “Welcome to Marwen” confounded me, as it did others. The trailer takes an incredibly complicated and intensely personal story and turns it into a star vehicle with a quirky cartoon twist. Zemeckis, the director of popular films such as “The Polar Express,” “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump,” will utilize heavy visual effects, with the action figures coming to life and fighting alongside Mark in his legal battle against the fascists who beat him. It’s an all-star cast, with Janelle Monáe as Hogancamp’s physical therapist, Leslie Mann as a comforting neighbor and Steve Carell as Hogancamp himself, wearing Hogancamp’s shell necklaces and all.
But everything appears too clean, too polished, too bright. Zemeckis’ insistence on grandiose special effects blends the town of Marwencol and the real world too seamlessly. Jeff Malmberg, the director of “Marwencol,” lets Hogancamp speak for himself. The documentary acknowledges that the camera can’t glimpse into his mind, so we can only watch as Hogencamp tries and tries again to exist as himself and figure out what it means to exist again.
Yes, this is the just the trailer. Maybe the film will be better. It already looks like women will have a more prominent role in this movie, and the idea of Monáe and Diane Kruger beating up a bunch of Nazis fills my heart with excitement. But “Welcome to Marwen” does not need to be made, and it doesn’t add anything substantial to the telling of Hogancamp’s story. At its best, it will be a heartfelt romp about the redemptive power of community and the ability to heal. But at its worst, it will use the story of one man’s struggle to make a shoddy, overly playful, “Toy Story”-meets-Charlie Kaufman trash fire.
Hogancamp will never be the same again. He’s not a man who dreams of becoming a war hero; he is a solitary, devastated person who tries to figure out who he is every single day. The unrelenting optimism, the bland naiveté “Welcome to Marwen” seems to present runs completely counter to what made “Marwencol” so good.
“Welcome to Marwen” can only succeed if it acknowledges the power of trauma, the impossibility of total understanding and the ever-present desire in every single person to be more than what they are. And if it fails to do this, as it likely will, then we should instead watch “Marwencol,” which portrays all of this and then some.