Mary Poppins Returns and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
This is one of the weirder cases of nostalgia I’ve had because I don’t have nostalgia about this story or the documentary from 2010. I have nostalgia for a review of it. Around that time I had just learned about Spill.com (which is now more or less split between Double Toasted and One Of Us) and one of the earliest podcasts I had heard from them was a series of reviews about films they saw at SXSW 2010 which included a review of the documentary. So when they announced this movie, I actually was rather interested to see it because I had never gotten around to the documentary but that review for whatever reason always stuck with me and so seeing a big budget studio adaptation of something I had THAT tertiary of knowledge for would be interesting; not to mention seeing what those same critics thought of this movie as well. Does this story of a man who found a way to cope with his trauma through the use of imaginative and painstakingly detailed art pieces manage to convey the raw emotional power of this man’s life and work, or are we stuck with another treacly adaptation that fails to live up to the material it’s based on; including the critically acclaimed documentary? Let’s find out!!
Loosely based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carrell), this movie follows the story of Mark who was nearly beaten to death by five Neo-Nazi monsters who did so after they learned that Mark enjoyed wearing women’s shoes. Fortunately Mark survived and the men were caught, but sadly he lost his memories, a lot of his motor skills (making it nearly impossible for him to write or draw), and has been suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since. In order to cope with what has happened, he created a World War II village named Marwen in his yard and stages elaborate action scenes and character moments using dolls that represent him, the Nazis who beat him up, and the women in his life who helped him afterwards. This includes Anna (Gwendoline Christie) a nurse who visits him once a month to bring him medication and check on his physical health, Julie (Janelle Monáe) a physical therapist with one leg who helped him walk again and has since been traveling the world and running in marathons, Caralala (Eiza González) who is Mark’s coworker at his part time job, Roberta (Merritt Wever) who works at the town’s hobby shop and has helped Mark get the parts he needs to bring this made up town to life, and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis) who he may not know in person but has starred in some of his FAVORITE films! Sadly, the one doll that is based on Wendy (Stefanie von Pftetten) who the town is partially named after (Marwen is short for Mark and Wendy) has been permanently removed and put into the RIP bin for reasons that aren’t made explicitly clear but can be somewhat inferred as we learn more about Mark’s life as well as the struggles and demons he’s had to work through. One such demon is the Belgian Witch Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who is the cause of many of Marwen’s woes and has a very distinct counterpart in the real world that you’ll have to keep an eye out for while watching them movie. Things seem to have been going along like this for some time now, but when Mark gets a new neighbor across the street named Nicol (Leslie Mann), well it looks like Marwen’s about to get a new resident which will certainly add a few more stories to the town’s ever expanding lore, but maybe this is the point where he takes things too far with his work; not to mention the overwhelming stress he’s feeling about the attack now that the men responsible are going to finally be sentenced for their crimes. Will Mark be able to face his attackers in court and put the incident behind him once and for all? Will Nicol understand what Mark is going through or will his behavior cross some very clear lines that he seems completely oblivious to when dealing with women outside of his fantasy world? Is it just me, or should they start making Marwen merchandise at some point? I want that Deja Thoris doll!
I think I might truly love this movie, and I’m a bit worried about that considering what people are saying about it. This is getting pretty negative reviews across the board which puts me in basically the opposite position I was at when Wind River came out, but honestly I tend to get more concerned when I LIKE something that everyone else hates rather than dislike something that everyone else loves. I try to be an attentive and open minded viewer and I try to catch pernicious attitudes or bad themes in movies which I’m not ALWAYS successful at (*cough* Passengers *cough*), but here I’m having a hard time really seeing it; at least to the extent that it either significantly wounds the movie or is presented in a way that I feel perpetuates the negative attitudes rather than explore them. It could also be that I don’t know much about the real life story (I never got around to seeing the documentary) and usually I worry about that when writing about movies that are BASED ON A TRUE STORY (ugh…), but I enjoyed this strictly as its own narrative so much that it’s not something I’m particularly invested in and you should probably take all this with a grain of salt if you are worried about its accuracy or how it represents the real Mark Hogancamp’s life and art. All I can really say is that this movie spoke to me on a level that not too many films do and it was an entertaining near-blockbuster type of experience to boot!
To me, this is a movie that finds a near perfect balance between garish cinematic indulgence and a genuine human story which, now that I think about it, might be the formula for so many of my favorite movies. Dr. Strangelove is a straight up comedic farce that deals with real issues of Cold War paranoia and the fallibility of our systems when given over to the worst among us (boy does THAT sound relevant right now, down to the extremely tense relationship with Russia), Ron Howard’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas is a bizarre and chaotic interpretation of Seuss’s work in order to deliver a compelling narrative about toxic cynicism even against legitimate problems, and while I’m not sure if THIS is going to be among those, it’s a movie about escapism and the dangers of indulging in it to the exclusion of everything else. Okay, that’s not the only thing, but that felt like the framework from which all the other stories in the movie were being presented to us. His relationship to the women in his life, particularly Nicol, is harmed by his inability to separate his own fantasies from reality and the internalized misogyny with which he depicts them; literally objectifying them and being in total control of their agency which he doesn’t have any control over in the real world and is therefore very intimidating to him. He can’t see himself as a victim in his own attack because of how much shame he has for his personal choices (wearing women’s shoes) that he has to invent a much more black and white version of his trauma in order to come to some sort of understanding of it, where he’s a strong jawed fighter for freedom against literal jack booted Nazis instead of a guy who got beat in the parking lot by… well okay, STILL literal Nazis if their tattoos are any indication, but it’s not a story of sexy resistance in the face of pure evil as it is a humiliating and traumatizing experience that happened for no good reason. Even his addiction issues are personified through a character in his fictional world; one who he can blame for all of his misfortunes rather than deal with the problem directly. In this coping mechanism he manages to not only find a degree of solace, but also creates something beautiful that many people find joy in (i.e. the art show in his honor that’s always in the back of the film’s narrative), and while you can see how this world has been necessary for him to obtain any degree of functionality after the attack, it’s also something that has stunted his recovery. He needed something to express himself and his pain with, but it’s something that will never be real and the life he’s constantly avoiding has begun to stagnate. It’s not overly depressing as the guy has friends, a part time job, and seems to be more than capable of taking care of himself physically, but he clearly wants more out of life and is… I guess you could say OUT OF PRACTICE so to speak in the ways in which he can obtain it. It’s got all the earmarks of a run of the mill feel good dramedy down to the director being Robert Zemeckis, but I think this is one that works a lot better than you typically expect from those kinds of films considering how great the premise is executed and how much pathos they can squeeze into every frame of it.
With all this talk about emotions, relationships, and trauma, let’s not also forget that this movie has a pretty awesome action film in the middle of it as well! Robert Zemeckis’s bizarre fascination with photo-realistic CG animation has led to some rather awkward looking movies, but I think he finds a unique and interesting style here that may not be photo-realistic, but conveys almost a Toy Story like aesthetic where everything looks appropriately “real” by which I mean they look like ACTUAL plastic action figures playing out these bombastic action scenes in a comically over the top World War II setting. Again, these scenes aren’t trivial as they are very reflective of how Mark sees his own tragedies and failings through a very rose tinted lens. The Nazis who he fights are gun totting soldiers trying to take over the town, the women in his life love and respect him, and he’s nothing but loving and respectful to them (in his own interpretation), and the bad things that happen can be ascribed to a magical being instead of his own personal failings. Heck, I wouldn’t mind living in this world of good guys, bad guys, and no one making awkward comments to bring down the mood! Maybe there’s a part of Mark’s view of the world that reflects myself and that’s why I seem to be one of the few praising this movie while everyone else is deriding it. I kind of see my own worst instincts within Mark’s fantasy world where he sees himself as not some loner with a hobby and instead as a tough, caring, and altruistic savior fighting off “evil men” with the help of “good women”. I mean I’m no psychologist, but whenever I play a video game I ALWAYS go for female characters over male characters because on some level I feel like I can (or at least WANT) to relate to them more than male counterparts; with the exception of Hwoarang from Tekken. He’s the best, and no one can beat him! This is all just an indulgent fantasy though because… well games ARE indulgent fantasies, so playing an JRPG and always having a party made up of the female characters is not “empowering” or “being respectful of women” or as Mark rather unnervingly puts it in this movie when talking about wearing women’s shoes “getting into the essence of women”. I know that I try to always check myself whenever I have thoughts that fall along these lines, and if Twitter is good for one thing (other than coddling Nazis), it can give you a WIDE range of views and opinions if you follow the right people, so hopefully I’m not projecting that sort of immaturity about women that Mark seems to be completely oblivious of, and frankly this kind of attitude towards women (which can often turn hostile with the right trigger) is rather prevalent in quote-unquote “geek and nerd media”, so maybe this is the kind of movie that will connect to them as well; at least the ones self-aware of their own biases instead of stubbornly burying their heads in the sand.
There were a few other issues I had with the movie and some of them are the same as other critics have been mentioning. As much as I had a strong reaction to the way that Mark’s misogyny was being presented (we rarely ever see this particular version of it as misogyny in film is almost always over the top women hatred), it could have used a bit more bite to it. When the Nicol subplot came to a head, I thought it was going to be much more… charged, but it still felt a bit coddling. Maybe that’s part of the point though. Whether or not the women in Mark’s life are doing the right thing or handling this in ways that are best for themselves and for Mark isn’t a slight against the movie; it’s just another aspect of this movie being about flawed people and how easy it is to escape into fantasy. Is it in and of itself a fantasy to believe that a guy who objectifies the women in his life to such a literal degree would still have non-hostile relationships with them? I guess I can’t really say for sure and I can’t really argue with anyone who dislikes the movie because of that, but looking at Mark, how his life has devolved right before everyone’s eyes since the attack, and the ways that the film frame his relationship to these women (i.e. not always in a positive light), I can’t really see it as a movie about the benefits of women deferring themselves to and coddling a man child. At worst, the movie could have stood to be more critical of Mark or at least had a few scenes with the women outside of how they interacted with him. It feels like there’s a badly needed scene of Nicol hanging out with Roberta or Caralala where they discuss his more pernicious behaviors or how some of the scenarios he’s crafted for his make believe world are rather suggestive and uncomfortable. The whole Deja aspect of the movie is also a bit of a misstep where she represents addiction which is further represented by the pills he takes and it feels somewhat undercooked in the movie. We’re never told exactly what these pills are or what they’re supposed to do which seems like a big oversight since the film puts so much of his personal demons on his addiction to this medication. Is it an opiate pain killer? Some sort of mood stabilizer? The message becomes somewhat confused because his misogyny isn’t something that can be blamed on his pills (the brief windows into his life before the attack show a somewhat problematic view of women as well) yet the pills and their representation in the world of Marwen are seen as the “antagonist” and primary thing to overcome. Now sure, this is a movie and despite the way it tries to thread the needle between cinematic bombast and real human awkwardness, I don’t blame them for wanting to give us something of a happy ending, and sure enough the movie doesn’t end with a HAPPILY EVER AFTER, but the big crisis moment in the third act where Mark “overcomes” as it were might have used a bit more nuance instead of more or less a big goofy action scene; an action scene that I LOVE, but it still makes the ending feel slightly hollow.
I made a very long video defending Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and I am very confident in my opinions of it even though I know that it’s not an opinion shared by many people; especially other critics. With a bit of hindsight I might be just as confident about my appreciation for this film even if I’m still not quite sure it’s up to that level as far as my ranking of favorite films. Heck, I’m not even sure how I’d rank this with my favorite films of this year, though it’s definitely a contender for one of the spots. If you’ve read all this and think that I might be on to something then I do recommend seeing it in theaters if for no other reason than the ridiculously awesome action set pieces with the dolls which are pretty impressive and are fun to watch on the big screen. Even if this does fall by the wayside to any number of other great movies that have come out this season, it’s still worth a look at some point and I hope that it will find its audience at some point even if it’s not lighting up the box office. Heck, I’d actually like to see more Marwen (or Marwencol) stuff in the future whether it’s straight up adaptations of Mark Hogancamp’s mythos! I know I like my World War II stories with Nazi zombies and all powerful witches! That’s not just me… right?
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