03 January 2019 (released)
08 January 2019
The life and work of photographer Mark Hogancamp was first brought to screens in 2010 documentary Marwencol, which serves as the inspiration for Zemeckis' latest film.
In Welcome to Marwen, viewers will discover that Mark (Steve Carell) was brutally attacked by a group of men in 2000 and left with little memory of his previous life. To cope with the trauma, he built a World War II-era Belgian town in his backyard and populated it with dolls representing himself, his friends and his attackers.
The film begins with Mark's doll alter ego Cap'n Hogie facing off with a group of Nazis before he is saved by the ladies of Marwen, all based on people he knows such as Roberta (Merritt Wever), his friend from the doll shop, his co-worker Caralala (Eiza Gonzalez), his Russian caretaker Anna (Gwendoline Christie) and social worker Julie (Janelle Monae).
It then switches to the real world, where we learn about Mark and his way of life. His photographs of the scenes he creates in Marwen are about to be exhibited, he's about to face his attackers at a sentencing hearing, and he has become enthralled by his new neighbour Nicol (Leslie Mann), who he has recreated in doll form. The doll version of Nicol falls in love with Cap'n Hogie, making Mark blur the lines between reality and fantasy.
The film continues to switch back and forth between the CGI doll sequences and Mark's real life, and it is effective in showing his road to recovery. But although the CGI sequences are easily entertaining, a lot of fun to watch, and visually impressive with the cast portraying their alter egos via motion capture, there were too many of these and not enough focus on the live-action, which is where the heart of the film should lie.
While Carell does a great job portraying the trauma Mark suffers, the screenplay is rather shallow, never giving us much depth to him, never fleshing out his relationship with Nicol, and we are left trying to figure out who he really is. The fantasy CGI elements make the film more accessible and fun for audiences but also leaves it feeling quite hollow, like it's dispensed with the gritty stuff to keep it light and digestible. And, yet, it somehow still feels a tad too long.
Mann gives Carell terrific support and together they create a moving dynamic. The rest of the ladies aren't given much to do and are just stock characters - Christie and Monae appear in the real world for only one scene each in which they help Mark with his recovery, while Gonzalez gets a couple more, but nothing of consequence. Wever is the only other notable supporting character, as a lovely caring friend who seems to have a little crush on Mark, while Diane Kruger appears exclusively in the doll scenes via motion capture as Hogie's nemesis Deja Thoris.
The film does have its issues, but it still sheds light on a fascinating and life-affirming true story while being entertaining and captivating. The story just needed more meat on its bones.