Director Robert Zemeckis uses Barbie-like dolls and settings to tell the story of “Welcome to Marwen.”
The techniques are more interesting than the story.
Based on the life of an artist who turned to photography after he was brutally attacked, "Marwen" takes audiences into his world, showing how he creates vignettes circa World War II. There, he plays out some of the situations he faced in contemporary life.
The artist, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), was the victim of a hate crime, left on the streets to die. After he recovered, he lost much of his memory and his ability to draw. To sustain himself, he created Marwen, a community in his yard, where dolls act out situations that he, then, photographs. Like a graphic novel, they tell a bigger story but also capture the artist’s attention to detail.
While watching some of these scenes come to life (Zemeckis animates the dolls in order to play out the stories), we discover Hogancamp’s situation – how women came to his rescue, how they’re an important part of his life and why he wears women’s shoes on a fairly regular basis.
A documentary, “Marwencol,” covered Hogancamp’s work and, presumably, its inspiration, but this is a whole different venture. At several points, it’s not clear what Zemeckis is intending.
Carell, the king of downer films of late, never shows us much of what Hogancamp was once like. He embraces the toys and cowers in the presence of newcomers.
When a woman (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street, he’s reluctant to get to know her. She pushes, the two share stories and, eventually, become friends. Her ex, however, still hovers, giving Hogancamp plenty of worrisome moments.
Courtroom scenes, which could have given Carell some big moments, flop. They don’t inform the story or even explain why the men beat Hogancamp. There’s a gallery opening that shows how his work turns out but the film never connects the dots and lets us know how he got from one medium to another, from therapy project to artist.
The backgrounds of the women in “Marwen” are equally puny. More of their relationships might have made the doll adventure more meaningful. When they strut down the faux-town’s streets to “Addicted to Love,” we want more.
Like his “Polar Express,” “Welcome to Marwen” is another Robert Zemeckis “project.” It isn’t as successful as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” but it tries to take animation in yet another direction.
It should have gestated a bit longer on the drawing board, but there is something worth noting. What that is, we're not quite sure.