Ultimately, there is a grand total of one test that Welcome to Marwen has to pass, and it does not. To wit, does this film do anything to justify its existence in face of the 2010 documentary Marwencol, which treats on exactly the same subject as this highly fantasised biopic, and does so with great care and a certain level of arm's-length concern about the very peculiar man at the center of both films. Welcome to Marwen is mostly careless, and is a boilerplate sentiment bomb that genuinely doesn't seem to realise how much it raises objections to the simple, heartwarming take on the material it supposes itself to be providing. It is less sophisticated and psychologically adroit than Marwencol almost without exception.

But it does do anything to improve on Marwencol, now that I think about it. Marwencol weirdly played peak-a-boo with a critical aspect of the main character's personality, revealing it as a third-act twist. Welcome to Marwen leads with it, and also elects to treat it as nothing we need to be terribly concerned about.

Anyway, the film is (the films are) about Mark Hogancamp (played in the new movie by Steve Carrell), was beaten by five men outside a bar in 2000 after he told them that he enjoyed wearing women's shoes. He was attacked so badly that he was left with no memory of his life prior to the attack, and was compelled to reconstruct a personality from scratch. He did this by building a model of a Belgian village in his backyard, using dolls to create a vivid fantasy world that would allow a brave but wounded American pilot, Hogie, to fight back against the bullies of the world in the form of the Nazis, with support from a phalanx of warrior women based on various female friends in his everyday life. Hogancamp took photos of the dolls to create this story, and has gone on to display his work in several gallery shows. Welcome to Marwen takes place during the lead-up to the first of these, which is also the lead-up to the court date sentencing the five attackers. And it's also when Mark gets a new across-the-street neighbor in the form of Nicol (Leslie Mann), who is a creation by screenwriters Robert Zemeckis (also directing) and Caroline Thompson designed, as far as I can tell, to enable some storytelling feints towards a potential romance that her married real-world analogue would have made awkward. Not that it's not awkward enough already.

The material of Mark Hogancamp's life requires a steady hand threading a very fine needle. It's easy to imagine a filmmaker exploiting his suffering; it's also easy to imagine celebrating him so much as to lose sight of his actual human self, and particularly the strange and selfish way he interacts with other people. Jeff Malmberg, making Marwencol, seems to have been keenly aware of all these things, and still managed to screw up a little bit. Zemeckis doesn't even seem to care - Mark, in the film, is more of a pretext for doing what the film is really interested in, which is creating an elaborate system of visually signifying subjectivity. Or put it a different way: Welcome to Marwen is a movie about the dolls, and Mark just happens to be the means of getting us over to them. Zemeckis spent a lot of years trying to make motion capture feature films work, you might recall, between 2004's The Polar Express and 2007's Beowulf and 2009's A Christmas Carol, and I was pleased to assume that he had given up. Turns out he was just biding his time, waiting for a scenario that would benefit from the ugly, textureless Uncanny Valley zombies of those earlier films. And here we have it, with Mark's frequent fantasy interludes in a sprawling backyard version of World War II brought to life in the form of Hogie and the women of Marwen stiffly moving their plastic limbs as they fight equally stiff Nazis.

And with that, I concede a point to Zemeckis. Welcome to Marwen might be a shallow, even irresponsible biography, but it's a pretty damn impressive technical exercise. The individual view can decide for themselves whether this is good enough. It seems almost that the main point of the thing, above and beyond every other possible concern, was to absolutely nail the transitions between Mark's backyard and the sprawling, action-filled world of Marwen, and these transitions are without exception perfect. The film evokes the subjective experience of having a thin grasp on reality and finding that fantasy keeps bleeding into life, both as a matter of choosing at any given moment to retreat into CG, or having it suddenly and without warning erupt, and this is something that Zemeckis and editor Jeremiah O'Driscoll have worked out ingeniously. Often, it will be a fluid long shot that suddenly finds the dolls moving and talking; more often, and even more effectively, it will be a cut to or from some photorealistic CGI landscape that triggers a moment of confusion as we recalibrate. Once in the fantasy sequences, the sound mix sweeps into the surround channels, bringing a richness that's nowhere to be found in the rest of the movie.

Whether this actually tells us anything about the movie's conception of Mark, let alone the real-life Hogancamp, is not really the film's concern, which speaks to its limitations as a character drama. I think, and it's no more than thinking, that the movie has some sense that Mark's comforting, violent fantasies aren't healthy, and that Mark himself is broken in fundamental, sad ways; but it also doesn't really know or care what those ways are. Carrell's performance is too simple and sweet to get into the thorny depths of the character's pain, and he doesn't acknowledge at all the reality that Mark is a somewhat distressing person to be around. Mann does, giving the film's only interesting performance, and that despite a script that is doing nothing at all to help her out: she is constantly surprised, and sometimes made uncomfortable, by Mark's words and actions, and we're definitely supposed to notice that. In one particularly striking moment close to the end, she finally has to inform Mark that he's making her uncomfortable, and Carrell freezes his body in a way that, if the whole movie was operating with this kind of energy, would actually tell us something about the man's troubled interior life. Instead, it's one isolated shot in a rather repetitive 116 minutes. It's a slick movie for sure, but also a pointless one, and the elegance of its craft ends up feeling in service to nothing at all but the filmmakers' desire to prove that this could all be done.