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Welcome to Marwen – Movie Review

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Welcome to Marwen – Movie Review

Rating: C (Average)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Universal Pictures

Robert Zemeckis is a filmmaker with an eye for the visual and the imaginative, so it’s understandable why the story of doll photographer Mark Hogancamp would appeal to him. Welcome to Marwen does a number of interesting things when telling the story, but the film as a whole doesn’t quite gel in a satisfying way. The pieces are there, but the film struggles in connecting the motion-captured world of the dolls with Mark’s real life. One could almost argue the movie trivializes and simplifies the real Mark’s trauma and struggles. Zemeckis definitely tries to be sincere and he’s helped by a really good performance from Steve Carell, but the visual effects overpower most of it.

There is some promise early on when we’re initially introduced to Mark and his fictional Belgian town of Marwen. There was a brief period when Zemeckis experimented with motion-capture as a storytelling tool, but there was something unnerving about the faux-real people that inhabited those productions. Using mo-cap for dolls is a smart way to work around that issue and Zemeckis has fun with what dolls can do, as does the sound effects team. He clearly admires Mark’s creativity in mounting his village and the dolls who inhabit it and sees Mark as a filmmaker in his own right. While the visual effects crew does a solid job with bringing the dolls to life, a bit of that uncanny valley does seep through.

Where Welcome to Marwen falters is connecting the two storylines. The film wants to get through the live-action scenes in a hurry, so we can return to the motion-captured portions. However, even the magic and appeal of those sections starts to run short after a while, especially when they take over. One plot point leads to a forced reference to one of Zemeckis’s earlier films, which is more distracting than charming. There is also an uncertainty over whether the movie’s treatment of Mark’s PTSD is respectful or insulting. However, Steve Carell does very well in playing Mark and creating the proper sympathy for him.

Welcome to Marwen makes a big point about how the women in Mark’s life shape him, but they’re not all that well developed. Leslie Man’s Nicol is given the most screentime, but she is primarily written as a potential love interest for Mark and little more. Janelle Monae and Gwendoline Christie appear in brief cameos, the latter speaking in a dodgy Russian accent, before disappearing completely into their doll doppelgangers. Merritt Wever’s kindly hobby shop owner Roberta is given the most character out of the women, showing a sympathetic presence in Mark’s life. Finally, Alan Silvestri’s score is also worth mentioning as it does a better job of jumping between the different tones than the movie as a whole does.

Robert Zemeckis’s cred as an imaginative filmmaker is absolutely earned and he has been instrumental in many leaps in movie technology over the years. That makes the average quality of Welcome to Marwen all the more disappointing. You can tell the passion he had for this story and his flights of fancy and love for out-there visuals are all over this film. However, the sentiment and fantasy elements don’t mix in a satisfactory way and the result is a rather muddled experience. Steve Carell is great and, like many Zemeckis films, the production values are top-notch. There just needed to be a better handle on the directing and writing fronts.

Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison