Welcome to Marwen, rated PG-13

Starring Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monae, Gwendoline Christie

Austin Family Critical Rating: 4 ½ of 5 stars

Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen, which opened in cinemas shortly before Christmas, is a fascinating film that defies any easily marketable category, and has thus struggled to find an audience. (Not helping matters is that it’s also been savaged by critics, who find the picture both bizarre and overly sentimental.) But watching the film on its own terms, I was struck by what Zemeckis and his team achieve in telling the true story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an artist who was viciously beaten by five men in upstate New York and lost much of his memory as a result. After coming out of the hospital, Hogancamp turned to his art for therapy, creating a miniature version of a World War II-era Belgian town named Marwen in his backyard. He populates the town with finely crafted dolls, dressed in U.S. army attire.

Although Hogancamp’s story was told in a 2010 documentary titled Marwencol, Zemeckis takes a highly cinematic approach by animating the lives of the dolls themselves. The film intercuts between the live-action story of Hogancamp battling his inner demons (largely concerning his appearance at the trial for his assailants), and the mostly-animated sequences with his dolls (including his surrogate, Cap’n Hogie) fighting off Nazis (the obvious stand-ins for his attackers). It’s undoubtedly a gamble – there aren’t many inspirational dramas populated with animated battle sequences – but Welcome to Marwen aims for something decidedly different than the documentary.

Zemeckis’s depiction of the women of Marwen is a particularly strong aspect of the film. The miniature Belgian town contains a group of women – all based on people in Mark’s life – who protect Cap’n Hogie from the Nazis. When Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street from Mark, he falls for her quickly – and, of course, creates a doll modeled after her. There is a particularly painful scene late in the film in which Mark asks Nicol to marry him (made all the more heartbreaking by Zemeckis allowing much of the scene to play out in a wide shot, in which Mark can’t even move after Nicol rejects him). Mark’s instinct is to kill off Nicol’s doll after her real-life rejection – in fact, after his attack, Mark was found and saved by a woman named Wendy. She similarly declined his romantic overtures, and Mark subsequently moved her doll into a “kill” box. One of the most powerful moments of Welcome to Marwen is Mark’s realization that he doesn’t have to discard someone from his life simply because they reject him.

Carell is excellent in the role (and one of the acting MVPs of the year, with great work in Welcome to Marwen, Vice and Beautiful Boy). He’s able to convey both Mark’s inner turmoil and the wisecracking energy of Cap’n Hogie. Zemeckis is as in control of his camera as ever; there’s a particularly great long take in which Nicol invites Mark over to her house. In a master class of economical storytelling, Mark crosses the street with his wagon of dolls, turns back and decides to leave the wagon, crosses the street again, and then, as he enters her house, Nicol’s boyfriend drives up blasting Cat Scratch Fever and nearly runs over Mark’s dolls in the street. Speaking of music, Zemeckis knows so well how to cue up the right track for the right moment: when Nicol leaves Mark’s house after giving him a seemingly romantic signal, there’s a slow push-in on Carell with Just My Imagination by The Temptations playing.

There’s no doubt some may find the style of Welcome to Marwen jarring, but Zemeckis is taking real chances here, and more often than not, they worked for me. Here is a film in which the entire climax takes place in our protagonist’s mind – a mental battle against his inner demons, played out by action figures. In a holiday season strangely full of superhero films and reboots (this season is often reserved for more adult fare), I’ll take something wild, daring and interesting like Welcome to Marwen over the alternatives any day.

Welcome to Marwen is rated PG-13 primarily for animated battle sequences, which contain a fair amount of violence. The movie also includes a brief reenactment of Mark’s beating. This is a PG-13 film that earns the rating – it’s certainly not your typical “family” offering, although I think that’s what makes the picture so interesting. I’d recommend it for ages 12 and above.

Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

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