Not too long ago, I was driving up north at night to work on a project the following morning. I was tired and disillusioned, and was going through a Caribou drive thru to be able to make the journey. It was then I heard Mark Hogancamp on NPR, talking about his town of Marwencol, what happened to him and his recovery, and the photos he took of his town that made him famous enough to get a movie about him starring Steve Carell. Maybe it was the way he spoke about his work that struck a chord with me, or maybe I was emotionally raw and extra receptive to his story, but I was fascinated and wanted to know more. A month later, the first trailer for Welcome to Marwen came out, and I was excited to see his story on the screen.
The story really began one night at the local bar, Mark Hogencamp was beaten within an inch of his life by a group of neo-Nazis who overheard him talking about wearing women’s shoes. Because of the head trauma he endured, almost every memory he had ever experienced before the assault was gone. In the process of his recovery, his wife divorced him, his former drawing abilities would never return, and he found himself dependent on antidepressants. Through army action figures and dolls, he built his own miniature town, Marwen (later Marwencol), to retell stories in his life through the filter of a WWII Belgium village of his own creation.
To me, Mark’s story is most fascinating when he’s figuring out how to create his world and the stories of the people who made up his main doll cast. Unfortunately, Director Robert Zemeckis disagreed, and found it would be more interesting to spend most of the time within the actual world of Marwen, where we see battles animated in the signature, motion capture animation his company Image Movers pioneered. This film also follows another not-so-positive Zemeckis trend of taking the story from a successful documentary and boiling it down into a CG heavy movie that doesn’t tell half as compelling a story. Welcome to Marwen is to Marwencol what The Walk was to Man on Wire.
Zemeckis has finally learned the lesson Pixar figured out back in the 90s — if you intend for the characters to look like plastic, no one will call you out on them looking like plastic. But the world of Marwen in the film is repetitive. Nobody would spend time critiquing the storylines of real life Mark’s Marwen, because the stories are vignettes told through photographs. But conversely, I don’t understand why someone would look at those vignettes and decide to base most of the movie on them either. In one photograph, Mark Hogencamp tells a more complete and compelling story than all the rendered graphics Image Movers can conjure up.
Another surprising point — the film starts two weeks before Mark’s work is set to premiere at a gallery in New York City, setting up his reluctance to attend and his fear of facing his attackers at their sentencing (which happens to fall on the same day) as dual obstacles for him to overcome. These aren’t bad obstacles for a character to overcome necessarily. But because we’re starting the story so late into the existence of the town of Marwen and the storylines of Mark’s invention, lots of screen time is spent explaining things that already happened, both in the real and imagined world. The second animated scene in Marwen introduces a character who almost immediately dies just to establish Deja, the Belgian Witch of Marwen, and her role in the story.
Deja is a cut and dry representation of Mark’s antidepressants, who keeps away anyone who gets close to his doll equivalent Hoagie. This is something I actually had to look up after the film, and got confirmation she existed in the real Marwencol from the documentary trailer. Why wouldn’t I accept she’s part of the story just from the film? Well, at one point she asks Mark to build her a time machine, and he promptly puts together what looks like a Lego DeLorean. Which at different points in the film, makes sound effects like the Back to the Future vehicle. And flies. And leaves fire trails in the sky. So it’s hard while watching Welcome to Marwen to parse between what is actually the ‘true story’, and what Zemeckis is making up to remind people he once made good movies. Incidentally, the time machine can also be seen in the trailer for the documentary. It’s just an old computer tower with a chair glued into it. But that wouldn’t have made for a climatic action sequence.
The live action sequences suffer from the choice to put this film two weeks from the gallery opening. Put simply, it just doesn’t feel like there’s enough story, especially when the story beats from the live action are shown to us again in the motion capture. The film runs just shy of two hours, but for how little of Hogencamp’s story we actually get from the film, it could have been half that.
We get to see the product of meticulous construction and modeling detail, but none of his struggle to create it. On his own website, Hogencamp’s description of Marwencol includes: “With his immense cast of dolls, Mark freely intermixes history and fantasy, allowing Kurt Russell to confront Goebbels, time-traveling witches to antagonize Hitler, and Mark himself to battle personal demons.” That would have been a fantastic moment, where a WWII model starts to bend into surreality. Would the Belgian Witch of Marcol have come off so anachronistic if we had seen her introduction? Instead we get a repeated line about stilettos not existing until the 1950s. Not quite Kurt Russell confronting Goebbels.
The performances are okay, with Leslie Mann and Merritt Wever carrying the most narrative weight. Most of the women of Marwen only have one or two scenes in the real world before they permanently become a doll in the narrative, which was a bad choice. Especially Gwendoline Christie, who pops in early to do a bad Russian accent and disappear into the CG ether. But I feel most for Steve Carell, who gives a performance that would have been lauded in a better film. I think he would have done well in a film about Hogencamp framed around different events in the Marwencol story, but the story choices in Welcome to Marwen don’t do Carell or Hogencamp justice.
Bad films aren’t always a disappointment, sometimes you know exactly what you’re getting. For me, I really wanted to like Welcome to Marwen, but knowing enough about the subject matter to have imagined a different story made the issues with the film harder to ignore. The nicest thing I could say leaving was I hoped the film might lead people to learn about the real Marwencol, Mark Hogencamp, and his inspiring story.
An amazing real life story is smothered in excessive CG plastic.