Film review: Welcome To Marwen is as hollow and plastic as the dolls it depicts

Robert Zemeckis came up with the goods in Back To The Future and Forrest Gump but his latest flight of fancy is overwhelmed by special effects and let down by a misfiring script, writes Damon Smith

Steve Carell and dolls in Welcome To Marwen
Damon Smith

INSPIRED by a remarkable true story, which was sensitively captured in the 2010 documentary Marwencol, director Robert Zemeckis's heart-warming yarn of self-rediscovery fails to connect on any emotional level.

In his previous work including Back To The Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump, the Oscar-winning film-maker demonstrated a flair for plucking heartstrings while he engineers fantastical adventures on a grand scale.

If life is like a box of chocolates then, disappointingly, Welcome To Marwen serves up a handsomely packaged selection of bland hard centres, which are impossible to swallow without choking.

A surfeit of flashy digital trickery, which magically brings to life an adult man's toy box of lifelike plastic dolls, overwhelms character development and hampers dramatic momentum.

The misfiring script co-written by Caroline Thompson unspools in real and imagined worlds, the latter providing a safe space where the victim of a horrific attack can piece together fragments of his shattered psyche.

Tears should flow freely, especially with Steve Carell cast in the anguished lead role, but there is barely a trickle of saltwater during two disjointed and curiously underwhelming hours.

Mark Hogancamp (Carell) is brutally assaulted outside a bar by five thugs, who take exception to the lovable loner drunkenly confessing his penchant for wearing women's high-heeled shoes. A barrage of sickening blows results in massive brain trauma.

"They kicked every memory I had out of my head," tearfully acknowledges Mark, who undergoes exhausting physical therapy alongside injured soldier Julie (Janelle Monae).

Visible wounds heal but Mark's confidence and long-term recollection remain shattered to smithereens.

In order to rebuild his life, he constructs a miniature Second World War village called Marwen in his backyard, which is populated with dolls that look uncannily like friends and neighbours.

The five attackers are portrayed as vicious Nazi officers while Mark adopts the guise of a swaggering American GI not dissimilar to Action Man.

Barbie-esque inhabitants of Marwen are reflections of real-life pals Roberta (Merritt Weaver) and Caralala (Eiza Gonzalez), soldier Julie, Russian carer Anna (Gwendoline Christie), adult film actress Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis) and newly arrived neighbour Nicol (Leslie Mann).

Mark re-enacts murky episodes from his past in the hand-made village so he can face the unrepentant attackers in court and confront his demons, which manifest as a flying witch called Deja (Diane Kruger).

Welcome To Marwen is as hollow and plastic as the figurines, which become imaginary confidantes to Mark and shepherd him along the treacherous path to recovery.

The script lacks an obvious emotional crescendo – even the pivotal courtroom showdown is overrun with special effects and pyrotechnics.

Carell's talents as a dramatic actor are largely untapped and gossamer-thin romantic subplots become an unsightly and unedifying tangle.

WELCOME TO MARWEN (12A, 116 mins) Drama/Fantasy/Romance. Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Weaver, Eiza Gonzalez, Janelle Monae, Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger, Leslie Zemeckis. Director: Robert Zemeckis

RATING: 4/10

Released: January 1 (UK & Ireland)

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