Review: Welcome to Marwen

December 21, 2018

Welcome to Marwen takes some of the most impressive character animation since Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa and welds it to a film so saggy and lacking in introspection that even those glorious visuals soon lose their lustre.

It tells the “true story” – with the emphasis on the inverted commas – of Mark Hogancamp, a reclusive artist suffering from an acute form of PTSD, forever reliving a major trauma through the medium of WWII-themed Barbie dolls.

In his fantasy world, which he photographs for art shows, his alter ego ‘Hogie’ is a war hero lost behind enemy lines, shacked up in a Belgian village with a bunch of busty babes who hang on his every word. Their chaste but flirty existence is shattered time and time again by a group of rampaging Nazis who Hogie must endlessly defeat, like a tiny Sisyphus pushing a plastic rock up a miniature hill.

The action sequences are all set firmly in the Uncanny Valley, with stop-motion styling combined with realistic depictions of the real-life actors. Hogie in particular looks every inch like a puppet version of Steve Carell, complete with intricately jointed shoulders and feet, and the tiny environs that Hogancamp constructs for his proxies are beautiful.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, The Polar Express, Beowulf) clearly has a list of Issues he’s keen to Address. Foremost is the troubling rise of white supremacy and neo Nazism in contemporary America. You see, Hogancamp has a fetish for lady’s shoes, to which a group of local thugs take brutal exception.

Welcome to Marwen also touches upon the opioid crisis and how people with genuine illnesses are being unwittingly turned into drug addicts, with that addiction here given physicality by yet another doll, the not-so-subtly named Deja.

The problem is, another American crisis, that a generation of man-children see women as little more than objects to be bent to their will, is glossed over; every female character is essentially a real-life doll, perfect and beautiful, there solely to orbit Carell’s all-encompassing sadness. On a more basic level, it’s hopelessly mawkish. Carell – who does tragi-comedy as well as anyone – is given a single tonal beat to hit again and again; pity, pity, pity.

It’s an interesting concept that’s horribly wasted, a toybox that should be dropped on the doorstep of Oxfam at the earliest opportunity.