PLOT A man who survived a brutal attack copes by building a doll-sized city in his backyard.
CAST Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever
RATED PG-13 (suggestive content, language and violent imagery)
BOTTOM LINE An inventive use of cinematic effects and animation to bring a true story to life.
If Robert Zemeckis’ “Welcome to Marwen” were a work of fiction, it might be dismissed as wildly inventive, exceedingly odd and a little unfocused. “Welcome to Marwen” features Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp, a man whose near-death beating outside a bar led him to build doll-sized World War II dioramas full of Nazi villains, buxom women and a brave pilot-version of himself. It’s a pretty idiosyncratic story — and that’s not even including the fact that Hogancamp was beaten for drunkenly revealing that he wears women’s shoes.
Hogancamp is a real person, the subject of Jeff Malmberg’s fascinating documentary “Marwencol” (2010). The details of his story, and the inexplicable artwork he created — stunningly detailed photographs of dolls in various poses of wartime action and romance — are all real. “Welcome to Marwen’ is Zemeckis’ attempt to turn the eccentric Hogancamp into the hero of a Hollywood film and use state-of-the-art technology to bring his artistic fantasies to life.
By and large, it works. Carell perfectly captures Hogancamp’s awkwardness and childlike innocence (the beating erased virtually all his memories). Leslie Mann is charming as Nicol, a new arrival to upstate Kingston, where Hogancamp lives. Smitten, he creates a doll version of Nicol (with alluring heels) to live in his made-up town, Marwen. She joins versions of his caretaker, Anna (Gwendoline Christie); his physical therapist, Julie (Janelle Monae); a local waitress, Carlala (Eiza Gonzalez); and a hobby-shop owner, Roberta (an achingly good Merritt Wever), all equally sexed-up and well-shod.
There’s one more doll to mention: Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a jealous witch who has no analogue in the real world. Zemeckis and his co-writer, Caroline Thompson (“Edward Scissorhands”), cleverly turn Hogancamp’s most mysterious creation into the film’s most powerful symbol, a talisman that traps him in Marwen.
The motion-capture technology and animation techniques that turn the actors into dolls are marvelous. Shoulders and knees have ball-and-socket joints, faces have the stiffness of plastic, yet the dolls move and emote uncannily like their actor-counterparts. Though the fantasy sequences can feel repetitive — Nazis attack Hogancamp, the women rescue him in a hail of bullets — there is deep emotional meaning running throughout this movie. “Welcome to Marwen” is the story of a man who has escaped from reality into fantasy and now must learn to do the reverse. In heels.