People are truly sleeping on the wrong movie when they slam Welcome to Marwen for being a movie simply about “a bunch of Barbie dolls”. While that does technically have merit here, it’s not all this film is. Welcome to Marwen, directed by Robert Zemeckis of Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and later The Polar Express fame, is an intriguing tale about a man going through the depths of his PTSD and trauma. The real life Mark Hogancamp (portrayed by Steve Carell), whose life is more thoroughly captured in the acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol, was beaten completely nearly to death by five men for admitting to liking wearing women’s shoes; he was left in a coma and with no memory of his previous life in the aftermath. With his menial health insurance leaving him to basically fend for himself, Hogancamp built the titular town of Marwen, a to-scale Belgian town set in WWII.
Through the life of his doll persona Hogie, Hogancamp is able to essentially become a G.I. hero, surrounded by his harem of warrior women, as he defeats the Nazi soldiers who’ve become stand-ins for the men he faced during the attack. I believe it’s important to view this film with an open mind, because as potentially off-putting (or also intriguing) as the incorporation of these dolls may be, they are pivotal to the telling of Hogancamp’s life story. The animation is truly spectacular, and is a more natural fit for this kind of film than something like The Polar Express. From the movements of the dolls to their facial expressions, Hogie & Co. come to life as real stand-ins for Mark who has an obviously difficult time coping with reality. There is a scene in which Mark is triggered into a memory of the attack, and Hogie comes ready to face the WWII-esque battle that Mark faces in his mind. It is a fascinating, if not heartbreaking, sequence that truly makes you feel for Mark’s situation. Those scenes that incorporate the dolls as placeholders for Mark when he’s unable to deal with reality are when the film truly shines.
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Often times, it becomes easy to conflate Hogancamp’s reality (of having survived a vicious, but local, attack) and Hogie’s WWII setting. The PTSD between Hogancamp and say, an actual war vet, would likely not be the same, but there are many interesting points the film addresses about the ways in which people are forced to cope. The Belgian Witch in the town of Marwen, Deja Thoris (Diana Kruger), is a clear manifestation of Mark’s medication addiction. Deja Thoris prevents the heroes of Marwen from living triumphantly, just as the addiction prevents Mark from independently living his life. There are some questions left unanswered when the addiction is miraculously destroyed in Marwen, leading Hogancamp to finally attend his court date and his art show, two things that seem to be the major events in his life he want to avoid at the start of the film. Similarly, my friend Carly and I found it interesting that one of the Women of Marwen™ was based off of Hogancamp’s favorite pornstar while the rest are based on women in his life that he really admires (such as his caretaker and hobby shop friend). This leads to one of the more interesting and potentially problematic facets of Welcome to Marwen…
As with any Hollywood film, Welcome to Marwen undoubtedly suffers from the same bouts of sexualization (now available in Doll Form), weird and potential fetishization, and a general failing of the Bechdel test. As a result, what you get is what can only be an extremely true story. I can’t necessarily get behind how the women are physically portrayed, especially when it’s marketed as a Look-At-These-Strong-and-Sexy-Women-of-Marwen. But from the standpoint of Mark who likely really did see the women in his life in this way, it all starts to make a little more sense. I would, however, have appreciated more appearances by Janelle Monae in the film. Her cameo was too darn short for someone who was featured in two Best Picture nominees back in 2016.
This film will leave you speechless because it really takes a detailed level of expertise to capture a story like this, from both a narrative and technical standpoint. I think Welcome to Marwen, backed by a very strong cast and a great performance by Carell, needs to at least get nominated for Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars (it would of course lose to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). Humorous and quirky, while still breaking hearts left and right, Welcome to Marwen is a uniquely original and I challenge you all to see it.