On paper, Robert Zemeckis looks like an ideal fit for the strange story of Mark Hogencamp, the creator of a 1:6 scale World War II Belgian village that served as a curious course of self-therapy after an intense personal trauma, and whose sincere, guileless photography has become a celebrated example of outsider art. Zemeckis has always been interested in the blending of fantasy and reality, and his fondness for splicing live action and hi-tech motion capture seems a perfect way to get inside the broken mind of his protagonist.
Like his previous Frankenstein attempts such as The Polar Express and his frankly nightmarish take on A Christmas Carol, the human story of Welcome to Marwen risks getting lost in Zemeckis’ obsession with playing with his techie toybox. Unlike earlier misfires, this project is just mad enough to keep the attention through sheer incredulity that it exists. It’s messy and problematic, but never dull.
After being beaten almost to death by five men outside his local bar, Hogencamp (Steve Carrell) has had to learn to walk and talk again, as well as come to terms with the loss of practically all his old memories. Previously an illustrator, he’s unable to pursue his former vocation as his motor skills have not sufficiently recovered and he can barely write his name. Instead he has painstakingly assembled the little village of Marwen and populated it with dolls that serve as analogues for himself, the women in his life, and the men who changed it beyond recognition. As ‘Captain Hogie’, he engages in endless skirmishes with his attackers (personified as Nazis), backed up and frequently saved by his devoted army of fantasy females, all while indulging his fetish for women’s shoes – the kink which led to his assault.
Zemeckis has received criticism in the past for his habitual kamikaze plunges into the Uncanny Valley. Like his contemporary George Lucas with the much-maligned Star Wars prequels, his ambition has frequently been thwarted by the limitations of the technology available, leading to curios like The Polar Express and Beowulf which felt like they had already begun to date by the time they were released. There is still an eerie edge to the animated sequences in Welcome to Marwen, but the obvious artifice of the smooth, shiny and stilted dolls actually works as a beneficial element of the film, acting as a clear delineation between the two worlds. When the dolls begin to encroach on Mark’s real life, Zemeckis conjures a little of the same chaos and wonder of undisputed classics like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.
It does appear that Zemeckis has also smoothed away some of the rougher edges of the real Hogencamp. Carrell plays him as a sweet, if inadvertently slightly creepy, savant. The film glosses over less palatable aspects of his past. It also fabricates a subplot of an addiction to prescription medication, anthropomorphised as an Absinthe Fairy-like witch named Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), who does exist in Hogencamp’s world but more as a metaphor for the barriers to his own recovery.
The biggest weakness is in the depiction of the women of Marwen. As much as he obviously adores the women in his life, he has ultimate control over them. This is less of a problem in the case of the characters of Nicol (Leslie Mann) and Roberta (a standout depiction of pure empathy by Merrit Wever), who are (literally) fleshed out in the story: Nicol as the unrequited object of Mark’s affection; and Roberta as the employee of the store from which he purchases the characters and ephemera of Marwen, who has an eternally patient eye on Mark herself. It becomes more of an issue in the case of the other women, who are given a few real-life scenes at most before being relegated to their plastic counterparts and surrender all autonomy.
These include Janelle Monáe as Julie, Mark’s social worker, Eiza González as Caralala, an employee at the bar where Mark helps out, and Anna (Gwendoline Christie), his Russian care-giver. At times, there are echoes of Jesse Plemons’ tyrannical space captain in the Black Mirror Episode ‘USS Callister’ in Mark’s manipulations. Even though Hogencamp is an ultimately more benign figure, Welcome to Marwen’s overall laudable championing of escapism as a coping mechanism arguably fails its female characters. Beyond this, it’s a flagrant waste of the talents at Zemeckis’ disposal.
For all its evident and major problems, Welcome to Marwen is an unruly and eccentric ode to healing and a rich inner life. It’s far more rewarding than its poor ratings suggest – one critic suggested it’s the worst film of the year; a nonsense given we’ve already had the execrable Life Itself – and its haywire idiosyncrasy is (if we’re being charitable) a good fit for the travails of its protagonist. It’s also a genuinely progressive celebration of harmless fetish.
Mark Hogencamp himself is perhaps better served through the 2010 documentary of his life and work, Marwencol, but this is the type of pure cinematic folly that should be encouraged given the constant bemoaning of the lack of originality in the industry. Welcome to Marwen will undoubtedly flop, but may just carve out its own little escapist world of cult appreciation.