In the 2010 documentary “Marwencol,” the world met Mark Hogancamp, the survivor of a vicious beating 10 years earlier who had turned to art as a form of therapy. In strange and strangely moving photographic dioramas, Hogancamp documented life in an imaginary world he had constructed in his Upstate New York backyard: a miniature, World War II-era Belgian town populated by foot-tall dolls and filled with meticulously rendered details. One G.I. Joe-style figure represented Hogancamp’s alter ego: a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot called Captain Hogie. Among the other inhabitants were figures representing both occupying Nazi troops and the members of an all-female squad of partisans, in the form of customized Barbie dolls.
Hogancamp’s true, if fictionalized, story, is now being told in “Welcome to Marwen,” starring Steve Carell as both Mark and, via motion capture, the heroic Hogie. Co-written by director Robert Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson, the resulting film is a sometimes jarring but ultimately effective extended metaphor for healing, in which two narratives unspool simultaneously: one taking place in the real world, and one that exists only in Mark’s deeply traumatized psyche. Unlike the real Hogancamp’s photographs, which simply hint at the existence of a magical parallel universe, Zemeckis’s film makes that fictional universe literal, segueing between live action and animation in a way that blurs the seams between them while making it clear that Mark is the only true inhabitant of that second world.
This grown-up “Toy Story” takes some getting used to, but the film wastes no time in setting its bizarre stage.
“Welcome to Marwen” opens with an animated sequence that features Hogie getting shot down over Belgium and then ambushed by Nazi soldiers, in a cartoonish attack that recapitulates Mark’s actual pummeling (which was far more brutal in real life than the movie ever shows, even in flashback). This prologue also suggests the reasons behind the attack — reasons that make it clear it was a hate crime and not a simple mugging.
The animation is excellent, from the plastic “skin” of Mark’s action figures and fashion dolls to their stiffly jointed movements. Occasionally, there’s a disconnect between the more jocular tone of the animated passages — as when Hogie refers to cattle that have been killed in crossfire as “cow-lateral damage” — and the film’s serious subject of a man struggling with PTSD in the aftermath of brutal violence.
That story centers on Mark’s relationship with several women who serve as inspiration for the female denizens of Marwen (“dolls,” as Hogie calls them, in an unironic borrowing from the lingo of 1940s and 1950s war movies). Chief among the dolls’ real-world counterparts are Roberta (Merritt Wever), a friend who runs the hobby shop where Mark buys his art supplies, and Mark’s new neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), a veterinary technician for whom he starts to develop romantic feelings — feelings that he projects onto Nicol’s 12-inch avatar. (Throughout the film, Mark talks to his dolls, and they talk back to him, if only in his head.)
Meanwhile, twin deadlines loom: the sentencing hearing for Mark’s assailants, which he would rather avoid, and the opening reception for his first show in a Manhattan art gallery. Will he get his head together in time? If these stressors feel like plot contrivances, they are no more artificial than the film’s central conceit, which you have to admit sounds pretty bonkers.
Just keep reminding yourself: It’s all based on a true story.
Hogancamp was a talented illustrator before the attack rendered him unable to draw. In retreating to a world of his imagination as a way to exorcise the demons that tormented him, he ended up creating real art. I’m not sure Zemeckis’s achievement rises to the same level, but this cinematic excursion to Marwen is almost certainly a trip to someplace you haven’t been before.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive elements, mature thematic material and strong language. 156 minutes.