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'Welcome to Marwen' is a seriously misjudged movie

Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp photographs the dolls for his fictional town in “Welcome to Marwen,” directed by Robert Zemeckis. (Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures - DreamWorks Pictures)
Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp photographs the dolls for his fictional town in “Welcome to Marwen,” directed by Robert Zemeckis. (Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures - DreamWorks Pictures)
Published Dec. 20, 2018

Welcome to Marwen is a misjudgment only a first-rate filmmaker could make.

I hope I'm in the minority with this opinion. It's a drag to respond poorly to the latest from director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis, who landed in my Top 10 as recently as 2012 (for Flight). The Chicago native's early progression from the exuberant flops I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and Used Cars (1980) to his first certifiable pop classic (Back to the Future, 1985) remains gratifying proof that a commercial filmmaker can hit it big without losing his way. Maybe Zemeckis' particular solutions to the narrative challenges posed by Welcome to Marwen simply don't feel satisfying or emotionally authentic to me.

All I can do is try to explain why.

The story behind Welcome to Marwen has been recounted, beautifully, by the 2010 documentary Marwencol. (That film's director, Jeff Malmberg, served as an executive producer on the Zemeckis film.) In 2000, Kingston, N.Y., resident Mark Hogancamp was nearly killed in a brutal five-man assault. The beating left Hogancamp with a traumatic brain injury, severe impairments and virtually no memories of his life until that night.

Hogancamp sought refuge in a wholly invented world, built to his own specifications and filled with 12-inch-high plastic figures. This was "Marwencol," Hogancamp's fantasy Belgian town, and the site of various and variously therapeutic World War II scenarios involving his alter ego, Capt. Hogancamp; a powerful sorceress; a passel of sexy, available female warriors; and an onslaught of Nazis hellbent on the captain's destruction.

Built carefully in his yard to 1:6 scale, Hogancamp's Marwencol turned into an extended photo shoot, with Hogancamp capturing images of the imaginary town and its inhabitants. The results found their way to a Manhattan art gallery in 2006, and the rest is a peculiar and reassuring slice of "found" history, asserting the power of one imagination over some pretty awful circumstances.

There's so much to this story: Hogancamp's post-traumatic stress disorder, the hate crime that brought him to the edge of the abyss, the creative outlets by which he turned that suffering into something else. It's clear why Zemeckis was compelled to attempt a big-screen dramatization of this defiantly small-scale universe.

Steve Carell plays Hogancamp and, in the extended motion-capture animation sequences, the studly captain. Roughly half the movie takes place in Marwen, as vignettes of combat, carousing, torture and romance are interlaced with real-world scenes. Screenwriters Caroline Thompson and Zemeckis freely fictionalize their version, so that Nicol, the friendly woman new to Hogancamp's neighborhood, played by a warmly empathetic Leslie Mann, becomes an audience conduit. For Hogancamp, Nicol's threatening ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson) triggers memories of the homophobic thugs we see in flashback.

The foot-high women in Hogancamp's Belgian enclave are played by Janelle Monae (G.I. Julie); Eiza Gonzalez (Caralala); Diane Kruger (as Deja Thoris, the Belgian witch); and others. Unsettling objects of desire, certainly, and Zemeckis knows it. We spend a lot of time with these figures, in Hogancamp's alternate reality.

Marwen (here shortened from "Marwencol") very quickly becomes the very thing Welcome to Marwen cannot overcome. The way Zemeckis shapes these stop-motion animation scenes, they're meant to be exciting, funny, scary, a little of everything. But they whack the movie completely off-kilter. We lose the strange, quiet intimacy of Hogancamp's careful manipulation of this world. The real-life scenes don't feel like Hogancamp's real life; they feel like a Hollywood falsification of it, despite Carell's and Mann's valiant efforts.

Zemeckis has long been a technical wizard: In 2004, his mo-cap version of The Polar Express (which I find hard to watch, for a lot of reasons) planted a flag for revolutionary technology. He's in love with what digital filmmaking can mean, and the tools it affords the clever filmmaker. But he can get lost in all that stuff, and in Welcome to Marwen, the toggling between Marwen and Hogancamp's real world becomes a source of aggravation — a long way from the triumph of the human spirit promised by Universal's marketing campaign. Not long ago Zemeckis made The Walk (2015), another unsteady dramatization of events inspired by an excellent documentary. The last thing an idiosyncratic loner of an artist needs, especially from a first-rate director, is a movie desperate to make the man's story as comforting as possible.


Welcome to Marwen

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Neil Jackson

Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis, Caroline Thompson

Rating: PG-13; fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language

Running time: 116 minutes