The inspiration for Robert Zemeckis' Welcome to Marwen is Mark Hogancamp, a Kingston, New York, man who began shooting impressive, uncanny photographs of dolls -- OK, "action figures" -- in war and love in his yard after suffering a brutal attack from teenagers in a bar. The attack, prompted by Hogancamp's predilection for wearing women's shoes, "kicked every memory" out of his head.
Hogancamp built, during his recovery, the tiny town of Marwen behind his home and populated it with sexy-tough Barbies and other female dolls, most of whom he altered to suggest a resemblance to women in his life. There he acted out and photographed his fantasies: A square-jawed, two-fisted war-hero dude based on him crashed his plane into the town, where the SS had killed all of the men.
That's fertile territory for Zemeckis. After all, the real Hogancamp managed to stir human feeling with his photos of plastic toys right around the time that Zemeckis was struggling to do the same with his motion-capture horror show The Polar Express<.i>. And as for the women-as-dolls routine, well, this is the director who put Jessica Rabbit onscreen. Steve Carell, playing Hogancamp, works that Robin Williams trick of showing he's serious by shutting almost entirely down, shutting everyone else out, each emotion his character feels coming out as hard and slow as a kidney stone. The real Hogancamp's photos are singular, mysterious, upsetting, oddly beautiful, outsider art expressive of something vital inside the artist. What he captured in his backyard for nickels is much more arresting than Zemeckis' million-dollar action scenes.