Welcome to Marwen is the latest Robert Zemeckis film to use state-of-the-art technology in the service of a story that’s cold and emotionless even though it’s supposed to be the opposite of that. It’s the natural evolution of the trio of animated films he made in the ’00s (Polar Express, Beofwulf and A Christmas Carol) that seemed to exist only because Zemeckis wanted to play with his animation toys. Welcome to Marwen is mostly live-action, but it has the same hollow emptiness, giving the impression that Zemeckis, like George Lucas, is great with technology but bad with humans.
It’s a true story, already told in the documentary Marwencol, about a man named Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) who barely survived a brutal beating and now copes with his PTSD and other issues by making and photographing dolls in a World War II setting he built in his yard. The dolls are based on himself and people he knows, including: Roberta (Merritt Wever) from the hobby shop where he buys his supplies; Anna (Gwendoline Christie), his Russian nurse; Caralala (Eiza Gonzalez), who works at the bar where he hangs out (and outside of which he was beaten up); and the latest addition, Nicol (Leslie Mann), based on his new neighbor, with whom he is instantly smitten.
Mark occupies his days with flights of fancy wherein his doll, Capt. Hogie, has run-ins with Nazis while defending the ladies of a small village in occupied France. We see this ongoing fantasy play out as if the dolls were alive, Toy Story style; the dolls’ faces are the actors’ faces, digitally ensmoothened so they look like plastic (which a lot of actors’ faces actually are! Hey hey!). In Mark’s imagination, Capt. Hogie falls in love with the new Nicol but is afraid to be with her because all previous attempts at romance have been thwarted by a Belgian witch named Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), who has killed before (Mark has a box for deceased dolls). Obviously, the hangups preventing Mark from moving forward in his imagination — where he ought to have free rein — are preventing him from moving forward in real life. The men who attacked him have been convicted, but he’s not sure he’s strong enough to attend the upcoming sentencing.
The special effects are seamless. The screenplay, on the other hand, which Zemeckis wrote with Caroline Thompson (a frequent Tim Burton collaborator), is clumsy and strange, seemingly oblivious to how weird it is. Mark has a thing for women’s shoes (this was what led to the attack, possibly a hate crime), but the movie refuses to delve into what it means, leaving at as a surface-level peculiarity. Tonally, the film occupies the uncomfortable space between being very serious and being completely absurd. Zemeckis definitely is not making light of the situation, but it would only require a half-step of tweaking to remake this exact screenplay as a dark comedy about a delusional screw-up. The only two emotions it conjured for me were boredom and bafflement.