‘My dolls have to tell the story.’ – Welcome To Marwen (Film Review)

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Just because something is done with good intentions, doesn’t necessarily ensure that the end product will be ‘good’. That’s more than true with this, Robert Zemeckis’ latest film. There’s something admirable about the film, about what it clearly wanted to be and what it wanted to achieve. Yet, ultimately, it all ends up being rather muddled and misguided. Like its protagonist, it’s lost between reality and fantasy. Also like its protagonist, the truth may have been far more compelling and coherent than this strange fiction.

Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was the victim of a brutal attack that nearly killed him. It destroyed his ability to draw, so he channelled his artistic energies into Marwen – a 1940’s wartime town for dolls. His doll alter-ego Cap’n’ Hogie resides there with the women of Marwen, inspired by the women in Mark’s life who give him strength. They help him fight off the Nazis, who represent the men who attacked Mark on that tragic night. Mark’s new neighbour Nicol (Leslie Mann) is the latest to join them, but as his fantasy world collides with the real one, Mark’s recovery from the accident has only just begun.

The film blends live action with animation, hoping between both worlds to show how interconnected they are for Mark. It makes sense in theory, the film is portraying Mark as a lost soul who relies on his creation to save him when the inner darkness creeps in. In turn it makes sense for the jumps between them to be sudden and unexpected, just as they are for Mark. In reality, it makes for truly uneven and bumpy storytelling. Just as one story gets compelling, it reverts to the other world. It’s an extended metaphor for Mark’s struggle, noble but ultimately it’s disjointed and clumsy.

Examples of this occur in relation to fetishism and representation of women. The film thinks it’s pro both of these aspects of Mark’s life, yet also manages not to be. It’s ideology is convoluted and unevenly handled. Mark likes wearing heels, it’s something he has liked doing since before he can remember. The film handles this in a matter-of-fact way, almost challenging the viewer to dare to find this and Mark in general as ‘other’, yet seems to delight in portraying Mark’s ‘otherness’  as ‘otherly’ as possible. It also acts as if is pro strong women, yet always relegates them to supporting him. Their ‘strong’ moments occur when they are serving him. They’re also the only bits of characterisation we get, the only things we learn about them are the bits that are relevant to him. They don’t seem to exist when they’re not alongside him, creating a almost child-like view Mark is the centre and their lives do not matter when he is not there.

The end result is poorly written weirdness that has very little control of it themes and messages. It desperately wants to be a film about resilience, recovery and redemption. Instead, it ends up being a serious absurdity of epic proportions, that is as plastic and hollow as the dolls who reside within it.

[2/5 stars]

Welcome To Marwen is in UK cinemas from 1st January 2019.