A good tearjerker is hiding within “Welcome to Marwen,” buried beneath technological quirk and poor pacing. Robert Zemeckis, in turning the documentary “Marwencol” into a feature film, has focused on all the wrong aspects. Where the doc felt intimate and personal, this is unnecessarily broad. The creative forces feel like their animated sequences are the showcase, while that’s the element that falls flat. When it’s focusing on the live action aspect, things are on firm ground. Otherwise, it’s oddly stillborn. The emotions you know it wants to bring out in you, which are the emotions you want to feel here, they just don’t come across.
“Welcome to Marwen” zigs when it should zag. A narrative feature is always going to be more surface level than a documentary, but this is egregious. Every notable aspect of the protagonist’s life is either revealed with animation that softens the blow, delivered in a hurried monologue, or just mentioned offhand. You barely get to know the how of the story, let alone the why. It’s as if the creators figured that “Marwencol” was common knowledge. It’s certainly not, leaving “Welcome to Marwen” to feel as if it only scratches the surface.
Based on a true story, as well as the doc, things kick off with the misguided decision to begin with an animated setup. Air Force Captain “Hoagie” (voice of Steve Carell) crashes his plane into the Belgian countryside, sure to be killed by Nazis. Engaged by German forces but saved due to a band of women, Hoagie sets up shop and makes a town named Marwen. At this point, the focus pulls back and we see that these dolls are being manipulated by Mark Hogancamp (Carell) in his yard. All over his property, Mark has set up the interiors and the exteriors of a scale version of the fictitious town. The victim years ago of a savage hate crime, it’s the only way he can cope.
Mark is clearly troubled. No longer able to draw, the former cartoonist is left to stay mostly at home, aside from trips to work and the hobby store. There, we see that the women he interacts with are the basis for the characters he populates Marwen with. They provide him with happiness, though not enough to overcome the severe anxiety and depression he suffers from. Faced with a sentencing date for his attackers, he seems to have retreated even more. Then, they arrive across the street of new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) sparks something. Suddenly, a new lady has arrived in Marwen.
As the court date draws closer, Mark bonds with Nicol, explaining to her some of the details of Marwen. As she learns why he has 256 pairs of shoes, so do we. When he gives her an account of his beating, that’s our entryway. Through it all, he reverts back to his dolls, leading to one animated sequence after the next. The question also remains throughout as to just how stable Mark is, especially since he seems to have a real unhealthy issue with one doll, the witch Deja Thoris (voice of Diane Kruger). Sadly, the documentary gave a far better account of all this than this narrative feature does.
The saddest part of “Welcome to Marwen” is how it doesn’t support Steve Carell’s emotional turn. Carell is committed to the tragedy of the role, there’s no doubt about that. He even goes full-throated into the animated segment. That opportunity allows him to display some bravado, mixing his performance up. It’s the tragic sequences that show him at his best, which makes it all the more of a shame that they’re given short shift. Carell is empathetic and compelling enough to grab your focus. Whenever a sequence of that nature comes about, unfortunately, the movie rips you out of it by switching to the animation. Carell deserved better. Even more so than in “Beautiful Boy,” a weighty dramatic performance by the actor is sabotaged by directorial choices.
For a movie once called “The Women of Marwen,” the female supporting characters are sure treated as second-class citizens. Leslie Mann’s Nicol is briefly given a subplot involving a stalker ex, but that thread is literally abandoned with zero effort to ever mention it again. Mann does her best and has nice chemistry with Carell, but Zemeckis seems to care more about the animated Nichol than the real one. Ditto for actresses like Gwendoline Christie, Eliza Gonzales, and Janelle Monae. Calling their roles two dimensional would be putting it mildly. Diane Kruger chews the scenery as the witch, while Merritt Wever helps move the plot along as a would be love interest for Mark, but they never break through. Supporting players like Neil Jackson, Stefanie von Pfetten, Siobhan Williams, and Leslie Zemeckis fare no better.
Robert Zemeckis is in a slump. Aside from the low key success of “The Walk,” recent efforts like “Allied” and “Welcome to Marwen” don’t offer a whole lot. Zemeckis’ return to live action was heralded, but the filmmaker who made “Back to the Future,” “Cast Away,” and “Forrest Gump” is nowhere to be found here. Zemeckis’ script, co-written by Caroline Thompson, glosses over every interesting plot point. It’s not even a case of showing but not telling, they show without ever telling.
C. Kim Miles‘ cinematography is bland in live action, though colorful when things move to the animated sections. Alan Silvestri reliably provides a good score. Miles and Silvestri could have used more from Thompson and Zemeckis. Too often, they bring up a unique part of Hogancamp’s tale but then slink away to get back to animated action. More about his shoe fetish and interest in an adult film actress. Fewer shootouts between cartoon dolls.
The animation, though dead weight on to the story, is fetching to look at. Somewhere between Zemeckis’ motion capture outings and the look of “Toy Story,” it has a distinctive appearance. Had the presentation of Hogancamp’s story been better done, these lively looking scenes could have elaborated on his tale. Instead, while showcasing strong visual effects, they ultimately provide very little.
Falling short of “Marwencol” in a multitude of ways, “Welcome to Marwen” represents a real missed opportunity. There are so many questions left about Hogancamp’s life and struggle. Zemeckis and company put all of their energy into unique animated sequences, leaving the live-action marrow to wither away. Had the focus been reversed, this could have been a touching drama with a quirky animated addition. That would have given this a separate feel from the documentary. Instead, it’s just a mediocre effort that offers a strong lead performance, pretty animation, and plenty of frustration.
“WELCOME TO MARWEN” IS DISTRIBUTED BY UNIVERSAL PICTURES AND OPENS IN THEATERS ON DEC. 21.