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Welcome to Marwen review: Trauma and toys don't play well together

The drama starring Steve Carell is a tale of PTSD and gorgeous toys, but it tries to juggle too much.


Welcome to Marwen is a rare kind of film nowadays: It's filled with gorgeous CGI effects, yet it's refreshingly not a superhero movie, a film that takes place among the stars or an animated tale. Instead it's based on the real story of Mark Hogancamp, who was savagely beaten outside a New York bar in 2000 in an attack that led to severe memory loss. As part of his therapy, he builds a small World War II-era village out of toys.

Director Robert Zemeckis essentially merges two movies. One re-creates Hogancamp's life, featuring Steve Carrell in a solid performance as the trauma victim who struggles to push forward since the attack. The other centers on Marwen, Hogancamp's World War II-era toy village, where Carrell's doll counterpart Hoagie is the one man leading an all-woman army, with each character based on a woman from his life. 

The overambitious combination doesn't always work, though, as the two stories feel compressed, giving the illustrious cast featuring Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monáe, Leslie Mann, Eiza González, Merritt Wever and Leslie Zemeckis very little development time in either doll or non-doll form. 


Among the female characters, Leslie Mann's Nicol gets the majority of the screen time in both real-life and doll form.


Mann's Nicol, a new neighbor of Hogancamp's who he quickly re-creates in doll form, gets the most attention of all the female characters in both storylines -- and it feels strange, as the rest of the characters appear to take a backseat.

Hogancamp envisions a great love story for himself and Nicol, but it's tinged with creepiness from the outset. On one hand, perhaps viewers should feel sympathy for his misguided attempts to reconnect with romance. On the other, the literal objectification of Nicol may cause them to root for Hogancamp a bit less. 

The overall fictional story of Marwen is a fun watch, but the longer doll-oriented action sequences near the end of the film appear to serve mostly as a distraction from the real-life segments. In particular, Deja, a doll-only role played by Diane Kruger, literally floats in and out of both the real-life and Marwen plots seemingly randomly. 


Steve Carrell's Mark Hogancamp builds a World War II-era village as part of his therapy.


Despite the movie juggling too much, the doll sequences are beautiful, featuring characters that manage to be expressive despite their shiny plastic bodies. Clothes, hair and stilettos are full of detail, with nice touches that enhance Marwen (for instance, the village fountain spouts large water drops relative to the dolls' size). 

In a world where movies are coming closer than ever to using CGI to re-create people entirely, this film gets to nearly do that without running the risk of an uncanny valley effect, since people are clearly represented as toys.

Oh, and don't let the toy angle trick you into thinking this is a story for children. While the film's rated PG-13 in the US, the attack on Hogancamp is brutal, the doll sequences have more blood and dismemberment than you'd expect and there's a cheesy porn sequence.

Welcome to Marwen is out in the US on Friday, the UK on Jan. 1 and Australia on Jan. 10.

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