With Welcome to Marwen, Robert Zemeckis largely transcends the uncanny valley in which his prior animated features The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol were mired, even if this latest partially-animated film maintains a similar level of sentimentality. Though the animated sequences consist of the coming-to-life of elaborate Barbie-sized dolls that troubled artist Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) photographs in hyper-realistic scenarios, there’s vitality in these scenes, fueled by the fact that the fast-living exploits of Mark’s Nazi-shooting, dame-loving alter-ego Cap’n Hogie often overlaps into Mark’s relatively grimmer reality. Mark endures the stresses that stem from a traumatic brain injury and PTSD incurred as the result of a violent assault resulting from his affinity for wearing women’s shoes, retreating into his plastic fantasy world rather than dealing with problems. But as seamless and vibrant as the animated sequences are, Zemeckis fails to imbue this biographical film with believable human emotion.

Zemeckis glosses over heavy subject matter, mining such serious topics as addiction, disability, hate crimes, queerness and even World War II and exploiting it for a supposedly inherent profundity that never actually manifests. In addition to crippling anxiety over the prospect of giving a statement at the sentencing hearing for his assailants—the neo-Nazi tattoos they sport on their arms explaining Cap’n Hogie’s perpetual fight against regenerating SS agents—Mark also suffers from a sense of isolation and loneliness. This occurs in spite of the supportive community of friends and neighbors who respect his quirks with the same unlikely, nonjudgmental small-town gusto as found in Lars and the Real Girl. He’s even got a close friendship with hobby store owner Roberta (Merritt Wever), who’s constantly trying to get him to go to dinner with her.

But it’s his new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) who really sets his heart aflutter. She’s immediately accepting of him as well, even though her overly friendly generosity and kindness are inevitably misconstrued by the repressed Mark as romantic interest. No matter, she still ends up as one of the plastic denizens of Marwen, the photography set he keeps in his yard and has built into portions of his own house. But the ease with which he finds dolls that look exactly like the people they are meant to represent is just one of many instances where the film treats its subject too reductively. Zemeckis also doesn’t trust his audience to ever put two and two together. In one scene, Mark actually shouts out to one of his more enigmatic doll-characters, “You are Mark’s addiction!” and in another a character awkwardly explains to the audience why Mark’s infatuation with Nicol leads him to change his town’s name to Marwencol.

Zemeckis’ refusal to go further than skin-deep on any of the heavy subjects that the film introduces, and its polishing away of the real-life Hogancamp’s pricklier edges, does a disservice to a far more complex personality than is depicted here. As flashy and sleekly-animated as the scenes are, the film’s onslaught of action sequences eventually grows tiresome. There’s only so many times Cap’n Hogie can battle Nazis before it becomes tedious. Mark’s bevy of buxom warrior women are all based on real people in his life, from Roberta to his physical therapy buddy GI Julie (Janelle Monáe) to his Russian in-home caregiver Anna (Gwendoline Christie). But these flesh-and-blood characters only appear long enough to introduce the reason Mark has included them in his collection of dames and their one-dimensionality makes Mark seem as though he’s literally treating these women as objects. Even Mark himself feels fabricated, the fantasy world in which he loses himself coming off as no less artificial than Zemeckis’ tacky vision of a manufactured version of human struggle.

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