Let’s play with dolls.

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Welcome to Marwen is a dramatized retelling of Mark Hogancamp’s journey after a brutal assault left him with no memories of his past and severe trauma. Hogancamp (played by Steve Carell) was once an illustrator, but after the attack he could only photograph. Staging elaborate scenes with dolls in a fictional WWII village named Marwen, Captain Hogie (also played by Carell—in doll form) is able to save the day, but the threats around him constantly recycle. Hogancamp tells a story of trauma over and over, and the fiction of Marwen is obviously a stand-in for him dealing with what happened to him.

Stories like this are ripe for adaptation, and Carell is excellent in showing trauma quietly. He is clearly wounded here, and anything can send him into a panic. His journey to slowly overcome what happened to him should have made excellent storytelling.

Should have.

I’m not going to go into historical divergence within the film (though there is apparently a lot), but rather the problems in storytelling present here. The film, and director Robert Zemeckis, are clearly more interested in spending time in the animated world of Marwen than in the real world. These scenes, with sexualized dolls of all the women in Hogancamp’s life are loud, action-packed, and almost entirely bereft of the narrative heft surrounding a story about a brutal attack. The film seems to want to be fun while also being a heady exploration on psychological recovery, which creates an imbalanced tone to say the least.

Perhaps even more annoying is the film’s almost outright refusal to address the attack in plain terms. Hogancamp was beaten by white supremacist goons because they heard he liked to wear women’s clothes (though it is only women’s shoes Hogancamp liked to wear). The reality of the hate crime here is skirted around, and we are constantly reminded that Hogancamp had been drinking the night of the attack and “should have kept his mouth shut.” This idea of queer silence creeps up more than once, and becomes a major moment in the trial as well, and no one ever shoots this down. No, it doesn’t matter if someone wants to wear women’s shoes. Full stop.

Gender dynamics are problematic here—to say the least. Hogancamp’s sexuality is presented as straight enough for a conventional film (he falls for his neighbor Nicol, played by Leslie Mann), but is presented as safely queer as well. He identifies women’s shoes as “holding a woman’s essence,” which is in the best cast scenario a little creepy. The film refuses to discuss anything in adult terms.

We don’t get to know Hogancamp—despite him being in nearly every scene of the film. Something as basic as his sexual preference is somewhat murky, and the seeming instinct to keep him closed off turns his character into a shell. I don’t know what the real Hogancamp is like, and I don’t think this film gives us much insight into his mind. All we are given is a wounded man who has everyone (well, nearly everyone) around him waiting with infinite patience and understanding for him to come to terms with what happened to him on his own terms. The film more or less ignores the implications that he is abusing pain killers, reliving his trauma, and not recovering.

However, since this is Hollywood, all those pesky little (real) problems will simply be waved away by the end. We have a well-lit fable were everything works out. (The film also introduces villains just to have them disappear without explanation, so I guess a magic godmother nuked them away or something).

Problematic films like this can be entertaining enough to be forgiven (something I think Zemeckis has banked on his whole career), and this one can’t make that standard. It is competently made, and well enough acted, but the lack of any real stakes just makes this a noisy cartoon.

This is looking to be one of the largest flops of the year, so I suppose everyone feels more or less the same as I do. Skip it.

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