The 2010 documentary “Marwencol” was a story about imagination triumphing over adversity — so what does Hollywood do in its flashy but empty adaptation, “Welcome to Marwen,” but strip away the imagination element?
“Welcome to Marwen” tells a dumbed-down, heavy-handed version of the story filmmaker Jeff Malmberg told in the documentary. It’s the story of Mark Hogancamp, an artist in upstate New York who has created a miniature model of a World War II Belgium town in his yard. In that town, he creates a series of tableaux using action figures and Barbie-like dolls of a heroic U.S. Army officer, Col. Hogie, and the buxom women who continually rescue him from the evil Nazis.
What “Marwencol” reveals gradually, and “Welcome to Marwen” dumps in your lap, is the fact that Hogancamp uses these stories of Col. Hogie to cope with and act out the great tragedy in his life: When, in 2000, he was attacked outside a bar and beaten almost to death. After nine days in a coma and 40 days in a hospital, Hogancamp, a former illustrator, had lost the ability to draw along with most of his memory of life before the attack.
In the fictionalized version, directed by Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”) and written by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson (“Edward Scissorhands”), Hogancamp is portrayed by Steve Carell, an actor who provokes empathy while lacking subtlety. That’s fitting for a movie where Zemeckis connects the dots by showing how his Russian caregiver Anna (Gwendoline Christie), former therapist Julie (Janelle Monae), Latina barmaid Carlala (Eiza Gonzalez), and Roberta (Merritt Wever), the model-shop owner who’s sweet on him, have been transformed into doll characters in Marwen.
A wild card is thrown into Hogancamp’s well-ordered world when Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street. A single woman who shows kindness to Hogancamp, it’s only a matter of time that he incorporates a doll Nicol into the story. When Nicol’s surly ex, Kurt (Neil Jackson), comes around, Hogancamp casts him as a Nazi.
Hogancamp faces a crisis when he’s urged to attend the sentencing of the men who beat him, people he fears to see again. That fear, and something else, manifests itself in “the Belgian witch of Marwen, the villainess Deja Thoris (performed by Diane Kruger), whose whispers exacerbate Hogancamp’s anxieties. (Deja is also used to allow Zemeckis to make a thudding reference to his greatest hit, “Back to the Future.”)
Zemeckis, always one to let technology overwhelm his storytelling, depicts the Marwen storyline through motion-capture animation that make the dolls come to “life.” Alas, the animation is less life-like than the still images of Hogancamp’s creation (the script has Hogancamp photographing his dolls, writing out of the story the photographer who discovered Marwencol) because it puts the action on the screen rather than in the viewer’s heads. Hogancamp and “Marwencol” trusted the viewer to see the story in still images; “Welcome to Marwen” doesn’t believe the audience can make the same leap.
‘Welcome to Marwen’
Opens Friday, December 21, at theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language. Running time: 116 minutes.