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Monday, January 7, 2019

Review: Welcome to Marwen

The (Second) Life and Art of Mark Hogencamp

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: December 21st, 2018 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama • Running Time: 116 minutes • Director: Robert Zemeckis • Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Caroline Thompson • Cast: Steve Carell, Merritt Wever, Leslie Mann, Falk Hentschel, Matt O'Leary, Patrick Roccas, Alexander Lowe, Eiza González, Leslie Zemeckis, Gwendoline Christie, Stefanie von Pfetten, Janelle Monáe, Neil Jackson

"I decided I'm not going to lie in my second life. I always tell the truth and tell people who I am, because why should I be afraid to tell you who I am?"

– Mark Hogencamp (from his book Welcome to Marwencol)

"Welcome to Marwen" is a weird movie. Not just original (which it certainly is) and not just unique (although it also is), but weird. But then, art is often weird, and so too are artists. 

Mark Hogencamp was a cross-dressing alcoholic nearly killed outside a bar for talking about wearing women's shoes and left brain-damaged and amnesiac after the attack. It's a role that could possibly have only been played by Steve Carell. In almost any other actor's hands, Hogencamp's odd/unique/weird/fill-in-the-blank personality traits would have dominated the performance – but Carell focuses on the humanity and sweetness inherent in the real-life Hogencamp. 

As the movie begins, the viewer is thrust into the middle of a World War II dogfight. However, it quickly becomes apparent that something is amiss. It's clearly Carell flying the plane, but he looks like a doll! And the aircraft looks like something from a model kit. The background seems kind of artificial as well. 

Welcome to Marwen.

Marwen is a fictional WWII-era town in Belgium comprised solely of dolls and the miniature locations built to host them. It's the brainchild of artist and photographer Mark Hogencamp and the home of the heroic Hogie – the doll that serves as his alter-ego. Also residing there are several Nazi soldiers who are repeatedly killed and come back to life like characters respawning in a video game, the Women of Marwen who oppose them every step of the way, and the enigmatic Deja Thoris – the Belgian Witch of Marwen.

Are you still reading this?

Yeah, it's easy to see why "Welcome to Marwen" sharply divided critics and didn't light up the box office, but certain viewers will certainly find a lot to like here. I was one of them, for reasons I'll get into later in this review.

In actuality, Hogencamp's visual art and storytelling are conveyed through stunning still photographs of the dolls he customizes and the models and sets he painstakingly builds. In the film, they're brought to life through a series of ambitious animated sequences. Interspersed throughout are scenes of Hogencamp's bleaker reality, where it becomes clear that every character in Marwen is based on someone he knows (Janelle Monáe of "Hidden Figures" appears in one such dual role, and his real-life attackers take the form of Nazi officers in Marwen).

Roberta (Merritt Wever) is the owner of the hobby shop in town Mark uses to build Marwen. She has clearly taken an interest in him, but the feeling is either not noticed or mutual. Then a new neighbor moves across the street – Nicol "without the e" (Leslie Mann) – who Hogencamp is instantly smitten with. It isn't long before she becomes Marwen's newest resident.

Readers of the book Welcome to Marwencol and viewers of the documentary "Marwencol" will notice several major changes typical of a "based on a true story" Hollywood production, but I was able experience "Welcome to Marwen" on its own terms because I saw the film first and read the book after.

Director Robert Zemeckis (probably best known for "Back to the Future" and "Forrest Gump") does an outstanding job of portraying Mark Hogencamp's fictional world through animation, just as Hogencamp himself does through his artistic photography. Creative types will tell you that there's a whole world living inside their heads – which only comes out through their writing, drawing, painting, photography, or whatever their preferred art form happens to be. "Welcome to Marwen" brings that process to life. It's not a perfect movie or one I could ever blindly recommend, but if you consider yourself a creative person, "Marwen" will probably speak to you.

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