Growing up in the 1980’s, one director who rose to prominence in my eyes was Robert Zemeckis. After entrancing me with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in my youth, I soon considered him to be one of my favorite directors beyond the norms of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Over the course of his film career, Zemeckis has never shied away from wanting to push the boundaries of storytelling and technology. This was evident in several of his films like Forrest Gump, Contact, and The Polar Express.
In recent years, Zemeckis has pushed into biographical territory, notably with his 2015 film, The Walk. With Welcome to Marwen, he is attempting to once again tell the story of a real-life figure, with special effects to enhance the tale.
Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carrell)’s life changed one evening, when he became the victim of a hate-crime. The results of these brutal events left him with memory loss, post-traumatic stress, and the inability to walk.
After regaining most of his faculties, Mark took refuge in the construction of a miniature village that he named Marwen. The village is the residence of a WWII pilot named Hogie (Mark’s alter-ego), and five women (each one based on a woman in Mark’s own life who inspired him). However, the quiet of the village (and Hogie’s life), is often disrupted by a small group of Nazi’s (based on the men who victimized Mark), leading Mark to take photographs detailing the stories of how Hogie and the women of Marwen fight back against their tormentors.
Mark finds unexpected fame when interest in his photography, leads to a number of requested exhibitions of his work. However, as his latest exhibition is about to begin, he is faced with two daunting situations.
The first is the upcoming sentencing of the men who assaulted him, leading Mark to grapple with the ghosts of his past.
The other situation concerns a new neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann), who has moved in across the street. As she grows interested in Marwen, Mark soon believes a new “recruit” may be moving in to the village.
With his latest film, Zemeckis was given the opportunity to show a man struggling to emerge from a terrible event, through the powers of creativity. Stories like this I am often willing to get behind if done properly. Unfortunately, Marwen’s story seems unsure of just how to tell itself.
At times, it feels like we are meant to see the world in a disjointed way, as if we were inside Hogancamp’s head as he struggles to keep himself functioning. A few times, we get jarring scenes revolving around Mark’s PTSD, and are left to figure out just what happened.
Zemeckis has done films before where he trusts his audience to piece together what’s happening, but it feels like some important pieces to the story are missing.
Most notable is in regards to the women who inspired the dolls living in Marwen. One would assume that we’d get a little more backstory about them and how they helped Mark, but only a few of their real-world counterparts even get the chance to be on-screen.
Speaking of the dolls, this seems to be where the film spends most of it’s time, as a number of imaginary scenarios that play out in Mark’s head, are animated through motion-capture technology. Zemeckis tries to weave seriousness and whimsy together in some of these scenes, but the numerous attempts to animate what Hogancamp envisions, feels a bit like CGI-overkill.
For most of the film, Steve Carell is front-and-center as Hogancamp (and his alter-ego, Hogie). He does his best to try and make us believe in Mark’s plight, but the story zig-zags so much that by the time it all ends, it feels more like we’ve been on a long car trip, rather than actually learned something from the experience.
Aside from Hogancamp, his neighbor Nicol feels like the only other “real” character that is given much screen-time. She seems to be our window into understanding Mark and his world, but there are some times she seems a bit too innocent. A good example is when she doesn’t see anything strange when Mark suddenly claims he’s added a new doll to Marwen…a redhead named Nicol.
That also is a fine line that the film seems hard-pressed to balance along. We’re meant to find some of Mark’s actions to be endearing and believe that it is okay to be different, but it feels like we’re never given enough time to be comfortable understanding him. This seems to be a major hump the film is unable to get over, and makes some scenes that are meant to be emotional, come off as a little unsettling or questionable.
I went into this film hoping to see beyond a lot of the negative talk I was hearing, but it feels like Welcome to Marwen falls into the lower areas of Robert Zemeckis’ filmography. He’s shown himself many times to be a competent and capable storyteller, but many of the decisions he makes regarding Mark Hogancamp’s story, makes the whole experience feel incredibly disjointed.
I think when it comes to learning more about Hogancamp and his work, it might be best to consider the 2010 documentary Marwencol. I know after I saw Zemeckis’ film, I did wonder if that documentary could shed some more light on helping me understand more about who this man (really) is.
Final Grade: C-
Over the years, we’ve seen a number of cartoon characters make a comeback.
In the 1980’s, Ross Bagdasarian Jr, ushered in a revival of his father’s creation, The Chipmunks. Starting in 1983, RBJ would bring Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, into the 1980’s, placing them and their father Dave Seville, into the California lifestyle. Along with singing Chipmunk versions of famous hits, the boys would get into a number of adventures.
Watching Alvin and the Chipmunks was a staple of my Saturday Mornings growing up. After the show went off the air, several cable channels picked up the episodes, and I soon found myself watching them in re-runs. Out of many of the episodes I remembered, there was one from the sixth season, that I always kept an eye out for.
An episode called: The Wall.
As the show starts, the boys are awoken by Dave, who informs them that they have been invited to play at the Wall of Iron Concert.
Alvin (naturally) is excited at the prospect of rubbing shoulders with plenty of big-name acts there, but Dave puts things in perspective, telling him that the concert is very important.
Soon they are flying over the host city, and view a long span of wall. It is here that Dave tells the boys (and us) that the wall was built after a war divided the country. The concert the Chipmunks will play at, is set up so that those on the concert side, can send the music across the wall to those on the other side, where a number of freedoms are encroached upon…including the ability to listen to our play rock music (which shocks the heck out of Alvin).
After landing in the (nondescript) city, Dave checks on the staging area, while the boys head over to check out the wall.
They soon encounter a little girl named Caterina, who is waiting for her brother Erik to send a message over the wall.
The message comes taped to a soccer ball, along with some drawings he did. The boys agree to take some pictures with Caterina to send back over the wall…and only after taking the pictures, does she recognize them(?). Her brother is a big fan of rock and roll (as well as the Chipmunks), but when the family was forced to flee, her brother did not make it to their side of the city.
Wanting to help reunite the siblings, Alvin attempts to use his star-power to try and reason with the guards on the other side of the wall’s entry-point. However, they assume the three boys are there to ‘defect,’ and one guard orders that the trio be taken to ‘the rock pile.’
Dave hears their cries for help, but is unable to get to them in time. He then attempts to scale the wall, but before he can make it over, Erik’s soccer ball hits him, and he falls back down.
Caterina intercepts the ball, which has a note saying that Erik has seen the Chipmunks being carried off, and is going to try to help them escape during the concert that night. Naturally, Dave takes Caterina’s word to wait (instead of going to the US Embassy to try and get the boys released).
Erik ends up infiltrating the boy’s room as a bellboy(?), and brings along some towels to tie together, allowing them to escape out the nearby window. He then takes them to a tailor, who disguises the boys. Before they leave, the old man gives them some items to give to his granddaughter, who is also on the other side of the wall.
However, the group doesn’t get far, when the boys are recognized, leading to them being recaptured, along with Erik.
As night falls, the boys are led to ‘the rock pile,’ with Alvin emotionally trying to drag out his expected death.
“Give him, ‘the ax,” says the man in charge.
Alvin braces for the worst…but is surprised when he is handed an electric guitar! Simon and Theodore are also surprised, when they are also given instruments.
It is then, that the commanding officer reveals that he and his men (who I guess have chosen to defect against their superiors!), want the boys to play rock and roll!
“Show our people, it should not be forbidden any longer,” he says.
On the other side of the wall, Dave has waited long enough, when he suddenly hears Alvin’s voice, singing a song that carries over the wall.
Soon, people on both sides of the wall are listening to the song. As they join in the chorus, the wall begins to form cracks, and soon a portion of it crumbles to the ground! Once the song ends, Caterina is reunited with Erik, the tailor with his granddaughter, and Dave with the Chipmunks.
The image then wavers, and we see Alvin and his brothers, asleep on an airplane. It is at this point that Dave wakes them up, and points out the wall through the plane’s window.
“It was just a dream,” says Alvin, “But it doesn’t have to be.”
As the episode ends, we get one more image of Caterina and Erik, standing next to the open wall.
While Alvin and the Chipmunks did have some emotional episodes, something about The Wall always stuck with me. It was when I went looking around online for more information on it some time ago, that I was surprised to find others also had fond memories of the storyline as well!
One reason the episode stuck in my head, was probably due to the song that Alvin and the boys sing.
For much of their career, the Chipmunks have mostly sung their renditions of popular songs. In the case of this episode, the song that was sung was an original piece of music (just who wrote it, I have no clue).
While there have been a number of albums of Chipmunk music released over the years, this song still has never had a proper release. Of course, if you look around Youtube, you’ll find audio copies people have gotten off the episode.
At the time, episodes of The Chipmunks usually consisted of two 10-12 minute stories. The Wall was the first part of the episode, that aired on December 17, 1988. However, some believe it’s story may have been inspired by several events.
During the late 1980’s, there was already growing resentment towards the Berlin Wall, that had divided East and West Berlin since 1961. In 1987, former President Ronald Reagan had given a speech, in which he had requested that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, “tear down the wall.”
The Wall of Iron concert in the episode, may have been inspired by several artists who played near the Berlin Wall. In 1987, David Bowie performed there during his Glass Spider Tour, and in 1988, Bruce Springsteen and his band followed suit (which could explain Alvin’s Springsteen-like vocals!).
And then, on November 9th, 1989, the unthinkable happened.
It was on this day, that the gates separating East and West Germany were thrown open. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I can still recall NBC News footage with reporter Tom Brokaw in the foreground, reporting on the event. Plus, word is that the weekend after the event, NBC re-aired The Chipmunks episode featuring The Wall in it.
Cartoons have often found ways to insert real-world notions or thoughts. Most of the time, they go over the heads of their younger audiences.. In the case of The Wall however, there was just something about it’s message about unifying families who had been separated under horrible circumstances, that I think stuck with many who saw it…and still see the episode today.