This year, I made a resolution to try not to let critic reviews heavily influence my decision to go see a movie or not. In the period between Christmas and New year, I’d booked to go see Holmes and Watson, but when the very bad reviews for it started coming it, I decided to cancel, opting to continue lazing on the sofa with food, drink and Netflix instead. That particular choice I don’t regret, but I feel there have been many occasions over the last year where I’ve either hated a movie the critics loved, or loved a movie the critics were negative about. Time to try and change that.
I almost did miss out on seeing Welcome to Marwen though, due to the large number of mediocre reviews I read. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have appealed to the general public enough to keep it in the cinemas for very long at all. Having only opened here in the UK on New year’s Day, the screening I went to last night was actually the last screening being shown at that particular cinema, and I was one of only a handful of people there watching it. What prompted me earlier this week to give it a go though was after listening to director Robert Zemeckis talk passionately about it, along with his other movies. It was a gentle reminder that this guy is responsible for so many of my favourite movies, and I decided to give it a shot. While I’m glad I did, and overall I enjoyed it a lot, I can certainly appreciate where some of the criticism is coming from.
Welcome to Marwen is based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp, and the 2010 documentary on his life title ‘Marwencol’. Mark (played in the movie by Steve Carell) suffered a severe beating at the hands of a bunch of thugs following an altercation in a bar regarding his lifestyle choice of being a cross dresser. After nine days in a coma, the beating understandably left him traumatised, but it also left him without any memory his life prior to the attack – once a talented war illustrator, he now can’t even write his own name. But Mark remained an artist, building a miniature World War II Belgian town called Marwen outside his home and populating it with dolls. Using them he creates scenes and a story which he then photographs, helping him to express and deal with his lack of memory, the pain and trauma he now experiences, and the relationships with the people around him. Captain Hogie is a fighter pilot, an Action Man/GI Joe figure representing Mark. The residents of Marwen are all women, alter egos of various people who have helped him in the past or continue to help him. The toyshop worker who supplies him with the dolls, a friend he met during rehab, a co-worker, his carer and the woman who came to his aid following his beating. The town is also terrorised regularly by a bunch of Nazis, representing the men responsible for attacking him. And whenever the Nazis are beaten and killed, they are brought back to life by a Belgian witch! When a woman called Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street, she strikes up a wonderful friendship with Mark, earning her own doll in the town of Marwen where she strikes up a relationship with Captain Hogie. As the movie progresses, Mark has to deal with the pending sentencing of his attackers and the anxiety surrounding an upcoming exhibition showcasing his photographs. Marwen, and its inhabitants, help him to work through all of this.
The scenes and stories in Marwen that Mark is creating and imagining are brought to life in the movie using impressive motion capture CGI which, if you’ve seen the trailer or any clips of the movie, will know looks incredible. When you think about the animation Zemeckis and his team were producing for The Polar Express back in 2004, through Beowulf and Disney’s The Christmas Carol to where we are now with this movie, it’s simply amazing how far we’ve come. Perfect recreations of the movie characters in doll form, moving and interacting with the real surroundings and the CGI is just faultless. But for the earlier parts of the movie, this aspect of the movie for me was for a while the most frustrating and dull. The movie opens with a big scene as Captain Hogie crashes his plane, comes across a group of Nazis before being rescued by the girls of Marwen and we get a few more of these lengthy sequences early on, with only short glimpses of Mark and his life inbetween. I found myself become interested and engrossed in the life of Mark, wanting to learn more, only to be snapped out of it by a not so interesting scene involving some dolls. Thankfully, the length of those scenes reduces over time, and as you begin to empathise more with Mark and his life, you start to appreciate more the reasons why a certain scene is playing out the way it is. At that point, I began to really appreciate and enjoy them a lot more.
My only issue overall with this movie is that I wouldn’t really know the age range to pitch it at, and that’s possibly why it doesn’t appear to have done so well with audiences. You’ve got the fun elements involving the dolls and the CGI, but then some of these scenes do involve a fair bit of violence which actually appears quite realistic at times. Then you’ve got the trauma and the flashbacks involving the beating – the movie doesn’t go as dark as it could, or maybe should have done with that subject matter, but I certainly wouldn’t say this is a fun movie for all the family to enjoy. Which is a shame really because I did enjoy this a lot. Steve Carell does an outstanding job, and Leslie Mann is just wonderful as always. It’s opened my eyes to some of the consequences of brain injury and made me want to learn more about Mark Hogancamp, which parts of the movie are true and which parts were added for entertainment. I’ll be sure to try and watch the documentary at some point.