Eighteen years ago, in a bar outside Kingston, New York, Mark Hogancamp — an illustrator who liked wearing women’s high-heels — was nearly beaten to death by five thugs. Waking up after nine days in a coma, the bruised, broken and brain-damaged ex-soldier had no recall of having served in the Navy or having once been married. He also lost his ability to draw and nearly all of the memories of friends and family on which he had built a life. Suffering from severe PTSD, Hogancamp attempted to heal himself through his art, constructing a miniature, World War II-era Belgian village in his backyard. He then populated it with dolls, mostly female, who would have his back when the next attacks came. The project eventually became a successful gallery show, as well as this man’s road back to the living. You can’t make up something like this.
Hogancamp’s true story demanded to be told on screen — and it was, brilliantly, in a 2010 documentary from Jeff Malmberg called Marwencol (and which makes those dolls, constructed and photographed with such artful adoration, an integral part of the film’s creation). Welcome to Marwen, the semi-fictionalized, Hollywood-driven retelling of the tale from filmmaker Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, the Back To the Future trilogy) is a dicier matter. You never doubt the good intentions of Zemeckis and Steve Carell, who plays Hogancamp with genuine grace. Sadly, something essential went missing in the trip from Marwencol to Marwen.
Bigness is part of the problem. Hogancamp constructed his town out of junk (money was tight and Medicaid had stopped paying his bills). The Hollywood Marwen has much bigger production values, and through computer-generated imagery and performance-capture acting, Zemeckis turns the dolls into screen-filling replicas of our hero, his allies and his adversaries. The problem is, the dolls don’t look real — their edges sanded off, the joint stiff, plastic things untouched by human hands. They recall the dead-eyed lifelessness of Zemeckis’ animated features The Polar Express, Beowolf and A Christmas Carol. Hogancamp photographed his store-bought Barbies and G.I. Joes in poses that made them appear mortal, relatable, almost human. These action figures don’t look even remotely real.
The same could be said for a lot of other business cooked up by Zemeckis and cowriter Caroline Thompson, notably the extravagant fantasia sequences of Hogancamp imagining himself as Captain Hogie. His alter-ego is a hotshot army bomber pilot; he imagines the thugs that attacked him as Nazis out to shoot him down. Everything is over-scaled for the wow factor, and while i’ts easy to admire the handiwork of Zemeckis and his tech crew, they seem to be admiring it, too — while losing track of the story’s humane core in the process.
It’s a relief when the film returns to reality. Carell allows us to feel his attachment to the empowering women in his life. There’s Janelle Monáe as Julie, the one-legged therapist; Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie as Anna, the Russian caretaker; Elza González as Carlala, who works at the bar where he was beaten; and the great Meritt Weaear as Roberta, from the local hobby shop. Voila! You’ve got a Hogie team. Also in the mix is Diane Kruger as Deja Thoris, a jealous witch who eliminates any “dame” (Mark’s dated term for the ladies) who dares move in on the pilot. And then there’s Nicol (Leslie Mann), a new neighbor for whom Mark develops an unrequited attraction. She’s the only one who gets close to him.
Just when this real-world intrigue gets going, Zemeckis turns all the women into their doll counterparts and flesh once again surrenders to fantasy. It’s a shame, really: Hogancamp deserves better, and so do audiences. Getting inside the head of this damaged protagonist and, by extension, Zemeckis — a filmmaker who also knows something about getting lost in worlds of his own creation — could have made for a potent provocation. Instead, it’s a major missed opportunity. Welcome to Marwen isn’t hack work; there are ideas buried beneath its high-gloss surface and relentless uplift. But good luck trying to dig them out.