When it comes to Robert Zemeckis films, you never know what you’re going to get. Like most, I’m a fan of his Back to the Future trilogy, and then there is Who Framed Roger Rabbit that to this day I feel is his best work. While he’s churned out many good films, there are films of his that I’m simply not a fan of. Forrest Gump happens to be one of those films. For the most part he makes audience-friendly films, but what I’ve always admired about the guy is how he’s always attempting to integrate new technology into his films. Zemeckis has become one of the pioneers of motion-capture technology. Ever since The Polar Express (2004), he’s been making improvements with the technology, and now with Welcome to Marwen, it is stunning to see just how far he has come.
The funny thing about Welcome to Marwen is that it may be one of the biggest-budget art films produced in a long time. Though the film is very much in tone with Zemeckis’s style, at the same time there is enough quirkiness in the characters and story that it may be a bit jarring for some. Because of this, it’s no surprise that it will have a divided audience that will love or hate this film.
The film is about Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), a man who was nearly beaten to death by five men. The attack was so severe it left Mark without any of his memories from before the attack. It’s brought up often in the film how before the attack he used to be a gifted artist, but after he couldn’t even write his name. As for the cause of the attack, it was simply because he made a comment about how he enjoys wearing women’s shoes. This little detail from his past life is really all we see carry over into Mark’s current life. Where the film picks up with Mark is on the days before the sentencing of the five men who beat him, and we witness his struggle to building up the courage to face his attackers in the courtroom.
There is a lot of compassion towards Mark from the citizens of his small town in the Catskills, though where Mark seems to find the most comfort is in the small town of Marwen that he has created for his dolls that spans around his yard. It’s in this little town where we often see Mark escape with his dolls and where we see him confronting his demons in an innocent yet tragic manner. In the opening sequence we see Cap’n Hogie flying over the skies of Belgium during WW2, and he is forced to crash-land his plane. In the process his shoes catch fire, and the only suitable replacements are a pair of women’s heels he comes across. He’s then confronted by five Nazi soldiers who laugh at his footwear before savagely beating him; things are not looking well for Hogie, till suddenly he is saved by a group of women who gun down the Nazis in a very overkill manner. This is where we see a photo snap, and we see that this has all been one of the scenarios that Mark has concocted to photograph. We don’t get to see how Mark got started with his project of Marwen, but he’s been at it long enough that he’s managed garner enough attention to warrant an art show of the pieces that he has created. It doesn’t take much to figure out who the dolls symbolize in Mark’s real life, but it’s the ladies who are in Mark’s life as well as the dolls that represent them that almost steal the film.
Moving in across the street from Mark is Nicol (without the E), played by Leslie Mann, who catches Mark’s attention and in many ways helps bring him out of his shell, though because he has his issues with interacting with real people, this means there will be a new doll added to his collection. The relationship that develops between Mark and Nicol is sweet and at times becomes painfully awkward where you’re not sure whether you should be laughing or cringing, but it’s what makes Mark all the more sympathetic. The character that I wish we got to spend more time with is Roberta (Merritt Wever), who works at the hobby shop where Mark gets all his supplies for Marwen.
The motion-capture animation with the dolls is beautifully done here, and their merging in and out of the real world is done well so that it there is no difficulty seeing what issues Mark is attempting to work out in his life. Though we see how Marwen works well as a way for Mark to escape, we do see how his ease to escaping to his dolls can lend to some harmful habits, one of which is a dangerous pill addiction.
I don’t know how faithful the film is to the life of the real Mark Hogancamp, but what the film has done is gotten me to want to search out more information about the man’s art. While I really enjoyed this film, I can see how this may not be a box office success considering the competition the film is up against. Steve Carell manages to do a lot with this character and sells this film despite having some odd dialog at times in the film. While this may not be one of the best films Robert Zemeckis has put out (to be fair, the man has numerous classics under his belt), I still really enjoyed this film, and I’m already looking forward to seeing this one again.
“A lot of weird stuff happens in Marwen…”
Welcome to Marwen is presented in the aspect ratio 2.39:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 34 mbps. This is a good looking film, though it’s the imagery where we see the dolls coming to life that shines brightest here. When the film slips into the living doll world the colors seem brighter, and despite the characters being animated dolls, they are still pretty lifelike. When the film slips back to the real world, despite there being a wide open color palette, things do seem muted by comparison. In some of the close-ups I was able to see some noise coming through in the image, but it was subtle and not very distracting.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is good and delivers a surprising punch when things get violent in the living doll world. When we are in the doll world, this is filled with mostly characters talking, and this all sounds clear and fine, but when the film slips into the doll world the 5.1 track expands nicely. Everything from the gun battles to the clicking of the heels on the pavement sounds good here and is very distinct. The gun battles are immersive, as are the moments where we are with Mark as he suffers through his flashbacks.
Marwen’s Citizens: (3:51) A brief feature with the cast discussing what it was like being in the film.
A Visionary Director (4:53) Here we have another brief feature that mostly shows director Robert Zemeckis working behind the scenes on the film. There are some brief interviews with the cast and crew here but nothing too informative.
Building Mawen: (4:03) This was my favorite feature, though I wish it was longer. It gets into the production of the scaled sets used for the scenes that take place in Marwen.
Living Dolls: (4:03) Another good but too-short feature. Here we get to see what went into making the actors look like their doll counterparts in the film.
Deleted Scenes: (11:22) There are eight scenes with the option to play all of them together. Some of the scenes the animation isn’t fully completed, and it’s kind of cool seeing these unfinished scenes; it makes the final product all the more impressive.
This is my second time seeing the film, and I’m surprised about the negative attention the film got. I appreciate this film and how it shows a character overcoming a great loss and hardship by putting his attention into art. Is this a happy, fun filled adventure like the trailers make it out to be? Not really; this is definitely an art film that happened to be shot on a big budget. I’m hoping with time this film will find its audience. If you are looking for something with heart that has some quirk to it, then this film could be for you.