“Welcome to Marwen,” the latest entry from director Robert Zemeckis, has its heart in the right place about a man struggling to regain the human elements of his life, with the help of his dolls. But somehow, the movie never really gives us a certain illusion in the magical style of “Forrest Gump.” It’s treated more like a Melo-drama than an inspiring movie.
The movie is based on a true story about how former illustrator Mark Hogancamp was. beaten up by five guys outside a bar, after telling them he was a cross-dresser. He liked wearing women’s shoes, for the record. Following the attack, he lost both his memories and ability to write. So, he bought dolls, and built a fictional Belgium town called “Marwencol,” set during WWII. They helped him get through the drama in his life.
Steve Carell gives an emotional performance as Mark, and his town’s name was originally “Marwen.” He must testify in court against the five attackers, and he has an art show, both of which he’s on the fence about attending. When he stresses out or gets trapped in his fantasy world, you actually feel his pain.
The dolls he buys and design are all based on the women he’s come across, including a bar chef named Caralala (Eiza Gonzalez), an amputated war vet named Julie (Janelle Monae), and his new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann). They’re all battling deathless Nazis, while Mark’s biggest demon is a Belgium witch named Dela Thoris (Diane Kruger), who has blue hair, a blue glove, and wants Mark to be her lover. All dolls in this movie are played by the actors through motion capture performances. Even Zemeckis, himself, had trouble explaining it at a Q&A I attended.
“Welcome to Marwen” only works when Carell eases his emotions, and struggles to regain the human part of his character’s life. He’s sensitive, he’s flexible, and he doesn’t let the fictional action consume him. And I admired looking at the tiny sets, from the buildings to the props to the environments they’re placed in.
But the problem with the movie is the illusion and its point. The story never really seems to go anywhere, and the dolls could have been given more detail in their motion capture effects. Make them look and feel like actual dolls and not CGI creations. I understood the concept, but I wanted more out of it, like a message or a character study.
There were moments when I felt something, but there were moments that left me wondering: could Zemeckis have done something more or less to the movie. It’s a well-meaning, but lackluster project, and I sympathize the real-life victim.