“Welcome to Marwen” is such an eccentric film that it wins a few points for sheer ambition, including its inventive visual scheme. The central story, however — which is inspired by a remarkable true one — never feels as transcendent or stirring as director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis clearly intends it to be.
Zemeckis has a long track record of movies built around employing special-effects wizardry in the service of storytelling, from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Forrest Gump” to less successful exercises (creatively speaking) like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf.”
“Marwen,” inspired by the 2010 documentary “Marwencol,” focuses on Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an artist who was the victim of a brutal beating outside a local bar, one that left him near death and devoid of memory. As a means of dealing with its aftermath, he began posing and photographing dolls, staging them in elaborate tableaus in a fictional Belgian town during World War II, where the very Mark-like hero is joined by a number of heavily armed women, all versions of those in his extended circle of relationships.
The locals accept Mark, a colorful if vulnerable figure, dragging around a toy jeep filled with his lifeless but constant companions. His relatively sedate existence, however, is upset by two events: the arrival of a new neighbor (Leslie Mann), who prompts unexpected feelings in him; and a calendar date to testify at the sentencing hearing for his attackers, who he’s reluctant to face.
At first, “Marwen” has an intriguing quality, ascertaining how Mark uses his photography to therapeutically work through his apprehensions. Much of the action is built around animated sequences featuring the dolls, and anyone who has ever played with a Barbie, Ken or G.I. Joe will have to smile at the stiff movements, awkward joints and rounded shoulders.
Carell is also joined by a good cast, seen mostly in doll form, with Diane Kruger, Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez, Merritt Wever and Gwendoline Christie among the alter egos in his rich fantasy world.
Once the novelty wears off, though, “Marwen” becomes a tedious, rather predictable slog, one where the music seems to swell enthusiastically at every available opportunity. Those flourishes bring a warm fuzziness to the proceedings that feels at odds with much of what transpires, given the vaguely erotic and violent nature of the images that Marwen presents.
Carell portrays Mark with ample sensitivity, in the third film that casts him as a real person (along with “Beautiful Boy” and the soon-to-be-released “Vice”) in as many months. While the gifted comedic actor is making the most of exhibiting his dramatic side, the overall results have been decidedly mixed.
In an interview with CNN, Zemeckis acknowledged that the hard-to-define movie could represent a tough sell, and the real mystery is what other than the bold-faced names convinced the studio, Universal, to roll the dice on it.
For a while, anyway, “Marwen” looks like a decent bet — at the least, an interesting place to visit. After a while, though, as fictional World War II towns populated by dolls go, it’s not a destination that provides much incentive to stay.
“Welcome to Marwen” premieres Dec. 21 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.