If you’ve seen any of the ads for Back to the Future and Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis’ latest film, Welcome to Marwen, you’ve ... probably have a few questions. Most of the images feature Steve Carell sitting next to a doll version of himself or acting as a CG version of that doll. Even the trailers, which do put the pictures into some context, and push an inspirational-but-murky tale, only raise more questions. For instance, So, is Carell a living doll? Or, is that Janelle Monáe?
In case you’re thinking of making Welcome to Marwen your family’s feel-good, movie-going experience this holiday season, we’ve prepared a list of questions you may be asking yourself as you try to decide between Zemeckis’ brand new blank check and, say, Aquaman. (The choice of Aquaman as a point of comparison is not to imply that they are on opposite sides of the quality spectrum but simply to say that they are equally bonkers.)
Mark Hogancamp is an actual artist, portrayed here by Steve Carell, who came to public attention through the photographs that he took of “Marwencol,” a miniature village he built in his backyard as a way of coping with the trauma of having nearly been beaten to death (and subsequently losing all memory of his previous life as well as his fine motor skills) for saying that he liked to wear women’s shoes.
The citizens of Marwencol — shortened to “Marwen” in the film for plot reasons (and, for ease, let’s assume all future descriptions are of the fictionalized version of this story) — are versions of Hogancamp and the prominent figures in his life, or “the women of Marwen.” They are Anna (Gwendoline Christie), Mark’s caretaker; Julie (Monáe), a friend made in rehab; Caralala (Eiza González), a coworker at the bar where he works; Roberta (Merritt Wever), who works at the hobby shop from which Mark buys his models; Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis, Robert Zemeckis’ wife), Mark’s favorite porn actress (weird combo, but we won’t linger); and Nicol (Leslie Mann), his new neighbor, who moves in across the street.
Along with Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, Zemeckis is the director of Death Becomes Her and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (one of the best movies of all time), as well as, in more recent years, the all-CGI versions of Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol. Put simply, he is a director known for going whole hog when it comes to visual effects. We will circle back to this.
Marwen is a Belgian village of Mark’s invention, and the name is a combination of Mark’s name with that of a woman named Wendy (Stefanie von Pfetten), who Mark credits with having saved him after the attack. Mark himself lives in upstate New York. In the movie, we drift back and forth between the two worlds as Mark struggles with his trauma, sometimes through set-up as Mark stages pictures, and sometimes through panic attacks, as Mark immediately imagines himself in their world in order to cope.
The film is set during the early 2000s, shortly after the attack, but before the sentencing of Mark’s assailants, which he is expected to attend. Whether or not he can pull himself together enough to go and confront his attackers is the main dramatic thrust of the story, though Zemeckis doesn’t seem all that interested in it, as it fizzles out before the film is over.
The action in the town of Marwen is set (for lack of a better way of putting it) during WWII.
Welcome to Marwen bounces back and forth between the real world and the world of Marwen, and mostly fails to make a compelling case for spending time in either. The women dolls continually fight off Nazi invaders and come to Hogie’s (Hogancamp’s miniature doppelganger) rescue — but they’re still fantasy objects, still sexualized, a choice that plays strangely with the way Mark projects his desires onto his creations, and then back onto the women they represent. Zemeckis doesn’t shy away from the fact that this makes Mark a little bit of a creep in real life, but the film is otherwise so literal-minded about Mark’s road to recovery and self-acceptance that the feel-good message fails to feel good at all.
It does, however, feel like a rush, insomuch as you never have and never will see anything quite like Welcome to Marwen; there’s no one except Zemeckis who could have come up with something like this. There’s a Belgian witch (Deja Thoris, played by Diane Kruger, who is the only character not based on a real-life woman, the reason for which is telegraphed in blinding lights and then driven home like a battering ram) who has built a time machine in order to steal Hogie away; dolls revert to plastic rigor mortis when they “die,” complete with a little click sound; Hogie’s head spins 180 degrees; I could go on.
The CGI sequences are wondrous in just how precise they are — though your mileage may vary when it comes to just how much plastic acting (I mean their plastic visages, rather than the quality of the acting, which is pretty good across the board) you can stomach — but their bizarreness takes away from Mark’s waking life, which is where the film’s real emotional stakes lie. And Marwen, despite essentially being a living metaphor, is also home to some of the movie’s most egregious cases of outright explaining its own themes. We get it, Robert! You don’t have to spell it out for us!
Through a lot of CGI. It’s strange to behold as is, but if you think that’s bad, just know that the first tests as to how to pull it all off, which superimposed doll proportions onto live-action performances from the actors, looked even worse. As per the folks at Atomic Fiction: “Humans have stretchy stuff all throughout their bodies, and when you put rigid ball joints in between fleshy human tissue, it just looks all wrong.” My burning desire to see those tests aside, the description only adds to the general mythos of Zemeckis as a director committed to fully exploiting the latest in cinematic technology.
Welcome to Marwen could be seen as a reflection of the director, who has thrown himself into painstakingly recreating worlds, but it’s not his story being told, and so the waters get a little muddy. In putting the film together, Zemeckis is firing on all cylinders, which is always to be commended. It’s just that it doesn’t quite hold together. The holiday-Hollywood-movie inspirational sweetness and the realer (and inherently darker) matter of Mark’s ordeal don’t mesh, and the events of the film seesaw between submitting to more audience-friendly outcomes and retaining a sense of truth.
Similarly, it’s hard to outright recommend the film, but it doesn’t warrant warding off of, either.
What demographic is this movie is meant to appeal to? I would not be able to answer. Why is it coming out for Christmas? In some universe, this is a family film, but not our universe. Is there anything that might help unspool the mystery of Welcome to Marwen in even the slightest? Maybe Marwencol, the great 2010 documentary about Hogancamp. Do we feel welcome in Marwen? Not necessarily, but we certainly won’t forget it.