Pretty sure you’ve never met anyone quite like Mark Hogancamp.
Almost positive you’ve never seen anything like the village of Marwen, Belgium, which exists in two places: Mark’s backyard and Mark’s imagination.
Leave it to the innovative and greatly skilled veteran director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” the “Back to the Future” movies, “The Polar Express”) to deliver a beautiful and endearingly eccentric movie based on the life and the imagination of Mark Hogancamp.
And leave it to the chameleon everyman Steve Carell to deliver a subtle, layered, empathetic and memorable portrayal of Mark — both the man and the doll.
The what? Yes. The doll.
As we learned in the brilliant 2010 documentary “Marwencol,” in April of 2000, five men viciously attacked Mark in his hometown of Kingston, N.Y., apparently motivated to the brutality because Mark had talked about his love of wearing women’s shoes.
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The savage beating left Mark in a coma for nine days and caused brain damage that left him without basic motor skills. Mark eventually regained his abilities to eat, walk, speak, etc. — but his memories were gone and his talent as an illustrator had vanished, and he continued to battle PTSD through the years.
Somehow, something inside Mark prompted him to create a unique form of art as a therapeutic device. He created the elaborate, intricate, greatly detailed and entirely made-up World War II-era village of Marwen, populated it with dolls representing himself and key figures in his life, and had his characters engage in romances and shootouts and adventures and intrigue, as if they were in a movie.
The documentary introduced us to Mark and his village. Thanks to Zemeckis and his motion-capture magic workers, “Welcome to Marwen” tracks Mark’s day-to-day ups and downs in the real world — but also brings that tiny village to life. Time and again, we’re plunged into the animated world of Marwen, where the brave and dashing American soldier “Hogie” does battle with the Nazis and celebrates his victories with a bevy of gun-toting beauties.
If this sounds strange and unusual, that’s because it IS strange and unusual — but at its core, “Welcome to Marwen” has the structure and the momentum of many a more traditional movie about an underdog who suffered enormous setbacks but is finding a way to cope, with a little help from his friends. Although Mark’s world springs from darkness and this is hardly a breezy romp of a story, there’s something profoundly uplifting and inspirational about the movie, and the man who inspired it.
“Welcome to Marwen” opens with an extended sequence inside the animated universe, with Motion-Capture Carell in the thick of yet another sticky situation. Director and co-writer Zemeckis establishes that animated premise and gets us acclimated to the Marwen world before we pull back and meet the “real” Mark, who lives in a comfortably shabby little place in his hometown and spends most of his time dreaming up new scenarios for Hogie and the gang and purchasing and modifying new dolls or set pieces. (Marwen has a bar, among other stunningly realistic-looking structures.)
In addition to Hogie, the village of Marwen features miniature alter egos of Mark’s physical therapist and friend (Janelle Monae), a waitress at the local bar (Eiza Gonzalez) and the kindly manager (Merritt Wever) of the toy shop where Mark buys figurines and accessories, among many others.
Now there’s a new figure in town: Nicol, based on Mark’s new across-the-street neighbor (Leslie Mann, doing some of her finest work), who takes an instant liking to Mark in the real world and has him wondering if there’s a chance for an actual, honest-to-gosh, real romance.
One of the many graceful touches in “Welcome to Marwen” is the total lack of pity or condescension in either world. Although absurdist at times (and borderline creepy, given Mark’s fascination with the Barbie-doll women populating the village), the adventures in the miniature village are taken seriously by everyone IN that village. (After all, they don’t “know” they’re dolls, right?)
Carell is a hoot as the macho Hogie, but when he’s real-world Mark, it’s almost as if he’s playing a different character. Still, with all his quirks and tics and sometimes-maddening stubbornness and unwillingness to face certain realities, this Mark is a funny, charming, interesting fellow. We can understand why the people in his life actually love being represented by dolls in Marwen.
They never view Mark as an object of pity. They view him as …
A friend. A good friend to have.
‘Welcome to Marwen’
Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language). Running time: 116 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.