The life of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) has been completely changed and devastated since he suffered a violent assault that almost killed him. He takes comfort in his friends, Roberta (Merritt Wever) and Caralala (Eiza González), and Russian caretaker, Anna (Gwendoline Christie). What he loves above all is to take photographs of a miniature World War II village he has constructed, which is populated by dolls which resemble people in his life. When a new neighbour moves in across the road called Nicol (Leslie Mann), Mark has to decide if his heart is ready to open up to a new relationship.
There is an uncanny valley effect in the opening of ‘Welcome to Marwen’ as its CGI characters (which you don’t realise are toys) are so lifelike in appearance. Director Robert Zemeckis, best-known for such classics as ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Forrest Gump’, previously directed ‘The Polar Express’, and while in that film, the CGI had a cold, jarring effect, here it has come in leaps and bounds and alternates well between live-action and special effects. Zemeckis also show his prowess as a filmmaker in the way he gradually builds Mark’s world as we learn who he is and what happened to him. The director blurs the lines between fantasy and reality in an immersive and intriguing way.
There’s a gentility to the characters of ‘Welcome to Marwen’ that is really very sweet. Even the World War II setting for the animated scenes has a playful, generic tone that isn’t actually threatening. There are bad people in the world too, as Mark sometimes finds. However, there is plenty more good than bad.
Steve Carell’s performance recalls his earlier role in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. The actor has been increasingly turning away from comedy and it’s clear that his range as a dramatic actor shall prove expansive. While Leslie Mann, Janelle Monae and the other female actors are all very good, there’s something of a questionable agency when it comes to their Women of Marwen characters. After all, while one could argue that they’re ass-kicking heroines, they’re also created by Mark to be what he needs them to be.
‘Welcome to Marwen’ has a simplistic vision of the world, where people reach out to someone in need, where goodness is rewarded and evil is punished. It lacks subtlety and complexity, and is almost childlike in its innocence. Yet there are parts that aren’t quite suitable for kids. The aforementioned representation of women is problematic, and it touches on the concept of sexual identity without fully exploring it. Zemeckis does well to pay fan service, for example, with the inclusion of a DeLorean reference, and makes some interesting stylistic choices, for example, he pulls the camera away during a sad scene at tea, allowing the characters space in an intimate moment. While you admire his optimism and range, there are elements of ‘Welcome to Marwen’ that don’t resonate as they should. Its niceness just seems a bit outdated.