Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Caroline Thompson
Stars: Steve Carell, Merritt Wever, Leslie Mann
When the director of one of the biggest and most beloved movies of all time releases a new film it should be an event, but this quirky oddity passed under most fans’ radar and was in and out of the multiplexes before they could say, ‘Great Scott!’ And that’s a shame because it’s a very clever and touching addition to Zemeckis’s CV.
Steve Carell plays Mark Hogencamp, the victim of a homophobic attack that almost killed him and has left him with memory problems and severe PTSD. Mark used to be a comic-book artist, but since the attack he can barely write his name, so he’s found a new way to channel his artistic urges by making stop-motion films with action figures and a camera. The fact that this is all based on a true story gives the film gravitas and makes you sympathise with Carell’s character so much faster.
The problem is Mark’s hobby is starting to take over his life. He’s built a whole town square for these dolls in his back yard and plays out various World War II scenarios with his little troupe of plastic actors in this town he calls Marwen. But the town of Marwen and its inhabitants are slowly creeping inside his house too, and thanks to the PTSD and the drug regime he is on, Mark is starting to lose sight of what’s real and what isn’t.
This film flopped badly when it came out. It cost $39M and took only $12.9M worldwide, but I think this is a fault of the marketing more than the film itself. When I first saw the trailer I thought it was something on a par with Spielberg’s Tin-Tin movie. That was a movie I watched and just thought: ‘Why?’ Why did they go to the trouble of motion-capturing and animating everyone when it would have been quicker, cheaper and better to just use live actors? It seemed like a gimmick; another clip for ILM’s showreel. To paraphrase Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm, ‘They were so busy asking if they could do it, they didn’t stop to think if they should do it.’ I thought Welcome to Marwen was going to be more of the same, only using Action Man (or GI Joes if you want to be American about it) type figures to tell a war story. It isn’t.
This isn’t a film for kids, but on seeing the trailer most adults probably thought it was, so neither group ended up seeing it. Hence the flop.
The fantasy sequences are renditions of Mark’s own stop-motion films and they only take up a small portion of the screen time. The film is really about a man using his fantasy world to cope with PTSD, with the WWII sequences very cleverly showing the battle going on inside his own mind.
Zemeckis is a master of big FX-laden movies, and though this has some fantastical elements, it’s essentially a small story about one man and his group of friends, but the director still delivers an amazing emotional climax. I actually got chills during the third act, and that’s not something that happens to me a lot nowadays, but the drama and tension were so expertly built I was right there with Hogie as he faced his demons.
It’s a very sweet film with a great visual representation of the effects of PTSD. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but even the darker aspects of the story are handled with such a deft touch so they never cross that line into bleak drama. And if that’s not enough to convince you, the Back to the Future references will put a big dopey grin on your face, I guarantee you.
Despite its poor box office showing I think this is a film that will be appreciated in years to come when enough people find it on their home screens.