There was always something creepy and off-putting about the characters who populated Robert Zemeckis’s run of CGI movies in the first decade of the 21st century. The motion capture techniques he adopted in The Polar Express presented us with awkward, dead-eyed figures more chilling than endearing, and although improvements were made in the subsequent Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, a core elements of these movies always felt unnervingly off. While Zemeckis has subsequently returned from the uncanny valley to live-action filmmaking, he’s always had one foot firmly planted in the digital world, and Welcome to Marwen feels like a film that no other director could – or would – have made.
Fortunately, the plastic quality of the CGI characters in Welcome to Marwen is intentional. Inspired by the life and works of Mark Hogancamp, whom some viewers will have already met in Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary Marwencol, Zemeckis’s film brings to life the models he captured in still photographs, creating spectacular WWII battles for these toy soldiers to engage in. The film’s Hogancamp (Steve Carell) has his own tiny avatar in Hogie, a tough American soldier who we meet in the opening scene as his plane crashes into enemy territory. He disembarks from his flaming jet, swaps his burned boots for a pair of women’s heels, and walks straight into some Nazis, before being saved by gang of gun-toting Barbie dolls. There’s a strange and unnerving dissonance in effect as we watch these toys shoot at each other; we don’t see any blood, but the Nazis scream in pain as their bodies are riddled with bullets, and when their corpses hit the floor they do so with an amusingly hollow clatter.
There is a point to all of this. The original town of Marwencol was an art project that Mark Hogancamp began as he recovered from a brutal beating that he suffered at the hands of a gang of men, prompted by his admission in a bar that he liked to wear women’s shoes. The attack left him with no memory, a loss of cognitive functions, and a deep trauma that he filtered through the highly detailed scenarios and tableaux he created with his dolls. The fighting women of Welcome to Marwen are all based on real people in Mark’s life who in some way helped him after the attack: his friend from the model shop (Merritt Wever), his Russian nurse (Gwendoline Christie, struggling with a dreadful accent), his rehabilitation partner (Janelle Monáe), etc. There’s also Nicol (Leslie Mann), whose likeness is added to Marwen when she moves in across the street.
Mark’s sense of longing for the sweet and understanding Nicol gives the film one of its central narrative threads, but Mark’s relationship with women in general is complicated and confounding. He has a collection of 287 pairs of women’s shoes, claiming they connect him to “the essence of dames,” and he’s constantly making full-throated declarations like “Women are the saviours of the world!” and “I love dames!” But he clearly fetishises these women rather than understanding or connecting with them. This is, after all, a man who claims his favourite actress is a porn star (played by Leslie Zemeckis, the director's wife) best known for the Bodacious Backdoor Babes series. The women he can control in his model village are preferable to the women in the real world who come with layers of complexity and messy emotions. Mark withdraws when Wever's Roberta raises the possibility of them going on a date, but he's happy to have her toy version's blouse torn as she flees the Nazis, her plastic boobs bouncing as she goes.
All of which might go some way to suggesting how weird Welcome to Marwen is. The film is presented as an uplifting tale of triumph over adversity, of the power of community to lift up a broken man, of the value of art as a means of processing trauma, but it's full of jarring, awkward pieces that don't always fit together elegantly, if at all. Zemeckis introduces a tonal whiplash as he cuts between Mark's real world and his imagined one, with the dolls and their battles often crashing unbidden into his real-life situation. (One even disrupts a porn film he’s trying to watch. Nazis really do ruin everything.) Credit is due to the actors who work hard to find moments of truth even as they are being asked to do a lot of seriously goofy shit, with the sensitively played scenes between Carell and Mann giving the film a crucial emotional ballast. In particular, I’m thinking of the moment when the damaged Mark mistakes Nicol’s kindness for reciprocity, a scene that unexpectedly took my breath away, with Zemeckis capturing the moment in a static shot that doesn’t gives us the chance to look away from the characters’ awkwardness and pain.
Regardless of its uneven tone, the misjudged stabs at humour (the “More ammo”/”More gumbo” gag doesn’t make a lick of sense) and the often clunky writing, Welcome to Marwen is a beautifully made film. Zemeckis is a director who has always known how to frame his images for emotional impact, who prefers to move his camera rather than to cut, and who understands how to tell a story visually. The manner in which he pulls us in and out of Mark’s fantasy world, blurring the barriers between the two, is frequently ingenious and surprising. As in his undervalued 2016 Allied, this old-school filmmaking craftsmanship feels like a breath of fresh air, and it’s hard to understand the outraged, mocking and dismissive nature of the film’s critical reaction. If you want to see Mark Hogancamp’s story, I’d advise you to watch Marwencol, because Welcome to Marwen – for better and for worse – is every inch a Robert Zemeckis movie. It’s an eccentric, flawed, risky and sincere picture that is attempting to get at complicated emotions in unusual and imaginative ways, and in the current climate of American studio filmmaking, that's not nothing.