I’m not a doll person and I sometimes laugh at the desperate declaration that action figure are not dolls. When I first saw “Welcome to Marwen,” I felt there was something creepy about the CGI that allowed actors to become fused to dolls and action figures–a realization of one’s imagination, but later that evening, after viewing the first 10 minutes of the documentary about Mark Hogancamp, “Marwencol,” I felt the unpleasant bitter taste of betrayal.
“Welcome to Marwen” begins with the dolls and action figures before we focus in on Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell). Mark’s action figure alter ego Hogie is a pilot whose plane is damaged during a World War II battle. He is able to land, but must find footgear which ends up being high heels. Threatened by Nazis, Hogie gets saved by some kickass Barbie dolls.
The CGI merges real faces of the actors, making the dolls more expressive, but ending somewhere between stiffly bad computer animation and wooden acting. The effect gives us a clear delineation between the real world and Hogancamp’s World War II fantasy world of Marwen.
In the real world, Mark gets a new neighbor, a fetching blonde named Nicol (Leslie Mann) without the “e,” who comes with a villainous ex–an abusive stalker named Kurt (Neil Jackson). Through Nicol, we see how real people become incorporated into Marwen and how some people can be more accepting toward crossdressers.
The screenplay by Caroline Thompson and director Robert Zemeckis posits that the villains of Marwen, the Nazis, represent the five men who viciously beat Mark after he drunkenly confessed that he was a crossdresser. The five men are all white and one of them has a prominent Nazi swastika tattoo. Part of Mark’s healing will come from him facing both the reality of his romance with Nicol being a no-go and his facing his attackers by making a victim statement.
Mark will find the possibility for romance, but he’s not looking in the right place in this scripting, but from the documentary, we know that isn’t true nor are all the attackers Neo-Nazis. The documentary also delineates how the real Hogancamp’s feelings about the Nazis are mixed because his grandfather fought on the German side during World War II.
Nazis are easy to see as the enemy for the general public although we have seen a rise in Neo-Nazis (e.g. Charlottesville), but what happened to Hogancamp was not this simplistic and his support system was a village, peopled by women, but also a few good men.
Carell’s performance as both man and action figure are exceptional, but lost in a movie that harks back to movie tropes best left in the 1950s. We now live in a world where the president has declared there are “very fine people on both sides” and we need to deal with the uncomfortable complexities of hate which “Welcome to Marwen” has simplified for easy public consumption. Watch “Marwencol” instead.