Movie Review: “Welcome to Marwen”

Robert Zemeckis’s “Welcome to Marwen’ opens with a waxy-looking Steve Carell flying over Belgium during the Second World War.  He is Cap’n Hogie, and soon finds himself on foot and ambushed by Nazis.  The sequence is beautiful, but there is something off about it as well – the plane doesn’t quite look real, the grass is too tall, the mud doesn’t appear to actually be mud.  Over and over there are little hints that not everything is as it appears to be.

Soon enough, the reasons for this becomes clear – we are being treated to a sequence that takes place in the mind of Steve Carell’s character, Mark Hogancamp.  Hogancamp, in the early 21st century, is photographing dolls, like Hogie, who are part of a World War II story he has created.  Thus, Carell looks waxy in the opening because it is an animated take on the dolls Hogancamp photographs.

Throughout the movie, which is based on a true story and features a script from Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson, there is a movement back and forth between Hogancamp’s life and the life of the dolls (all of whom are representations of people Hogancamp knows). The transitions between the real and the imagined are beautiful.  The doll world, Marwen, is brilliantly executed, the motion-capture animation used for the dolls renders them in amazing fashion.  They really are brought to life.

Hogancamp’s world is far more heartbreaking.  He has lost his memory due to an attack which took place several years earlier.  An artist, he no longer has the ability to draw and has substituted photography for it.  Worse, he is still tormented by the night he was beaten.  The sentencing of the men who brutalized him is approaching and Hogancamp doesn’t know if he can attend because of the trauma.  The story is devastating.

On so many levels, “Welcome to Marwen” is a crashing success.  Carell delivers what may be his best performance(s) and the potential love triangle between Hogancamp, Roberta (Merritt Wever), and Nicol (Leslie Mann) is engrossing even if none of the twists and turns are particularly surprising.

Despite the successes of both the animated and the live portions of the film, as a whole, “Welcome to Marwen” does not work.  It is astoundingly ambitious failure, but a failure.

The animated sequences, wonderful as they are, are lighthearted (even if they feature much Nazi killing and resurrected bad guys and blood).  Frankly, they’re magical and delightful to watch (the cast also includes Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, and Janelle Monáe, all of whom do great work).  The real world, however, is far more grave.  Even when things are going well for Hogancamp, he is still quite clearly dealing with outsized problems and in need of help that he isn’t getting.  There is a gravitas to the real world which isn’t presented in the doll world, and jerking the audience back and forth between the two is unsuccessful.  Even if the transitions are great on a technical level, the result is not. Never does the audience get enough of Hogancamp’s story.  Never do we understand how he could be living like this for so long with so little help, and why that help isn’t forthcoming.  The people with whom he interacts are explored too little.  The film simply doesn’t have time for it having to tell the story both of Marwen and of Hogancamp.

In fact, to go a step further, this lack of gravitas in Marwen does a disservice to the actual world – it cuts the depth of the audience’s emotions, lessening the pain we internalize from Hogancamp’s real life.  In offering a step back to the audience, much as Hogancamp uses Marwen as a step back from his life, we are given the same emotional release Hogancamp receives.  Yet, with too little time spent on the actual world, the emotional release only undercuts the importance of Hogancamp’s story.  It keeps us at a distance when we should be there by his side.

Other missteps exist as well, most notably Zemeckis referencing some of his other work. This, too, reinforces the distance between Hogancamp and the audience.  It is supposed to be cute and funny and it is, but every time the movie goes for cute and funny it feels wrong.  This man was nearly murdered because he admitted, when drunk, that he liked to wear women’s shoes.  It is an obscene thing to have happened and even if the movie doesn’t make a joke of it, the joviality chips away at it.

“Welcome to Marwen” is a massive swing for the fences.  It reaches incredible heights on a technical level and the moments where dolls interact with Hogancamp are magical.  All of Marwen, in fact, is magical.  The story of Hogancamp itself is an emotional minefield the audience must brave.  The movements between the two worlds is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on screen in some time.  However, it all crumbles when one pays attention to the stories being told and what they mean.

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photo credit:  Universal Pictures

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