There are many different ways to illustrate the effects of trauma on film. Welcome to Marwen uses metaphor to relate the (very loosely) based on fact tale of Mark Hogencamp, an artist who was savagely beaten outside of a bar. He lost his memory and the ability to draw. The movie takes place after his physical recovery, while he is still struggling on a mental and emotional level. Director/producer/cowriter Robert Zemeckis deals with this material simplistically. There are heavy themes here which he treats with the delicacy of a bad sitcom. The acting is good and there is some impressive animation, but the emotions feel so phony that I found it nearly impossible to buy into any of it.
The hook is this: Mark can no longer draw, so he chose to take up photography. Specifically, he bought a whole bunch of dolls, built a miniature town and uses them to tell the story of a lone soldier in WW2 Belgium, who is protected by a group of tough women. The events in his fantasy town, named Marwen, are rendered using beautiful CGI animation.
All of the dolls represent someone in Mark’s life and they bare a pretty stunning resemblance to the actors (who also voice them). Those sequences are surprisingly violent, but all of the characters are dolls so it is bloodless and kind of goofy. The tone is mildly comedic with a lot of puns and light visual gags. There is certainly the potential there for something entertaining. I would not mind an entire movie set in this world. Welcome to Marwen uses it only as a way of adding artificial depth to its live-action plot. Everything that happens in Marwen is a blindingly obvious metaphor. While the animators did good work, the writing fails them.
The live-action material is condescending and formulaic. It makes Mark’s complex journey look easy. He has locked himself away from the real world, however if he can break from his routines and open himself up to other people, he will be just fine! Steve Carell, a very talented actor, plays Mark as a socially-awkward nice guy who longs for connection, but feels incapable of it. It is right in his wheelhouse, though wrong for this story. Since they do not have to carry the unconvincing emotions, the supporting cast (featuring Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monáe and Diane Kruger) fares a little better. That being said, it is remarkable Carell is as effective as he is considering the screenplay has the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
The majority of Zemeckis’ decisions feel wrong for this subject. So much could have been done with Mark Hogancamp’s story, but it would have taken nuance, which is completely lacking here. Welcome to Marwen (109 minutes without the end credits) is a feel-good dramedy. People love uplifting stories during the holidays, so it seems like the perfect movie for this time of year. I can see audiences enjoying it, yet I could not get past how insincere it felt. I have seen the word “disaster” thrown around in regards to Marwen, but I will not go that far. The animation is great and the performances are really good. The thought is there from a technical standpoint. Sadly, it reduces an intriguing true life story to an ill-conceived crowd-pleaser.
2 out of 5
Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp
Leslie Mann as Nicol
Merritt Wever as Roberta
Diane Kruger as Deja Thoris
Eiza Gonzalez as Carlala
Gwendoline Christie as Anna
Janelle Monáe as Julie
Stefanie von Pfetten as Wendy
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson