When we think about director Robert Zemeckis, the first movies that come to mind are Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, yet the brilliant American filmmaker sometimes gave us even more personal and touching works such as Welcome to Marwen from 2018.
Starting with the biography of artist Mark Hogancamp, Zemeckis labors with imagination to recreate the passion and misfortune of a man who loses everything and must rebuild his life from scratch.
Indeed, Mark was the victim of a brutal assault in a bar, where a group of young neo-Nazis beat him nearly to death for his penchant for wearing women’s shoes.
Earlier, the man was a skilled drawer and cartoonist, yet because of the severe injuries from this tragic event, he can later barely write his name.
However, the flames of his inventiveness have not gone out. While incapable of drawing, this burning desire of Mark to bring his imagination to life prevails.
With the encouragement and support of friends, he creates a charming village called Marwen, forever frozen in the World War II period, which he populates with dolls inspired by all the people in his real life.
Amid this fantasy world, Captain Hogie is Mark’s alter ego, leading a brave group of female soldiers against cruel Nazi enemies.
Despite his limitations, Mark finds a new way to express his art: photographing his creations and creating stories in a collection of scrapbooks, winning first his friends’ admiration and then general interest, even reaching a major public exhibition.
After his success, he will finally need to find the courage to face the challenge he dreads most: facing his attackers in court and leaving that bloody story behind.
Pain and loneliness become art
In the 2018 film landscape, Welcome to Marwen is a rare gem where pain and loneliness become sublime art, although this movie did not receive the recognition it deserved at the box office.
Facing the distressing reality of alienation, the protagonist loses the memory of who he once was and the ability to practice his greatest passion.
Despite this emptiness, he does not allow despair to overwhelm him. Instead, he finds salvation by immersing in creation, bringing a wonderful and imaginative world to life.
Director Robert Zemeckis masterfully illustrates the contrast between the vibrancy and grace of the female figures who populate it against the univocal and negative face of the Nazis.
It is precise because they are sad stereotypes that Nazis in the cinema always succeed: we all love it when Nazism’s evilness is mocked in the comedy genre and fought with breathtaking action sequences.
In addition to the village’s army of female puppets, Captain Hogie also wears female shoes, even in combat. This choice is not related to his sexuality; in fact, his heart beats for his charming new neighbor, Nicol.
He immediately puts her into his fantasy world, yet an ominous shadow looms over their romance: the fairy Deja Thoris, a friend/enemy representing Mark’s insidious drug addiction.
From Who Framed Roger Rabbit, we know Zemeckis possesses a unique talent for mixing animation and live action, and here he reaches new heights of perfection, with puppets appearing incredibly authentic toys but also expressing intense emotions.
Finally, the usual spectacular action sequences arrive with impeccable dynamic and smooth editing, accompanied by Alan Silvestri’s musical mastery, in a strange fairy tale loaded as an invitation for viewers of all ages. A shared experience to reflect on the universal themes of love, friendship, and family ties.
The victory of life over violence
Steve Carell gives a generous and funny performance as this strange artist, hero, and victim, all captured in this great actor’s hazy but brave eyes.
A sad and intense portrayal of a man who endured pain and humiliation because of a group of thugs who unjustly ruined him but will then have his rebirth with his brilliant mind.
Moreover, he has a new hope for love in the new neighbor, played by Leslie Mann, who immediately sympathizes with him.
The girl is sweet and sensitive yet constantly bothered by her ex-husband, whose uncivilized behavior is reminiscent of the same men who attacked Mark and, of course, the Nazi puppets in Marwen.
Robert Zemeckis builds a fabulous riot of special effects, combat, and magic in a powerful and layered imaginative world.
Indeed, each puppet in his plastic world represents the protagonist’s hopes and fears, especially his fear of being alone and overwhelmed by grief, often taking refuge in his fantasy town.
Based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp and the art installation Marwencol, this is a perfect adventure about his imagination and the love of his closest friends won out against the cowardice of the Nazi bullies who beat him, creating a fairy world as a shield from human evil, stunning the world with his simple but effective photographic art.
Unfortunately and painfully, Welcome to Marwen was a big commercial flop in 2018, grossing very little compared to the movie’s high production costs.