Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (2007) / Fantasy-Comedy

MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences
Running time: 93 min

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Zach Mills, Jason Bateman, Rebecca Northan, Ted Ludzik
Director: Zach Helm

Screenplay: Zach Helm
Review published August 8, 2008

Dustin Hoffman (Perfume, Racing Stripes) stars as Mr. Magorium, an eccentric centuries-old owner of a magical toy store.  After living such a long life, Magorium is set to "depart from the world," leaving the shop to his 23-year-old assistant, Molly (Portman, My Blueberry Nights).  However, Molly certainly doesn't want Magorium to depart, and isn't very keen on running the entire store all by herself, especially as she would like to utilize her gifts for music, so she implores him to stick around as much as he can.  A fastidious (and quite anal) accountant, Henry (Bateman, Juno), comes in to put all the ducks in a row for the handover, while a young misfit boy named Eric (Mills, Kit Kittredge) becomes fast friends with them all.  Meanwhile, the store itself is in tune with what's going on, and the toys don't take Magorium's wish to leave lightly.

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium won't be to every taste, as it coats its whimsy with a thick and drippy paint roller.  Normally, I might be resistant to a film that tries this much to be so affecting, but in the end, I found myself interested in what ends up being a personal story of life's ends and beginnings, even if it is difficult to make out a small tale under all of the toxic color schemes and spinning, bouncing doodads.  Written and directed by Stranger Than Fiction's screenwriter Zach Helm, directing for the first time, his two stories correlate to one another in that they tell an ordinary journey amid extraordinary circumstances.

Mr. Magorium isn't a perfect film, and it's especially ambitious a first project for a novice director to nail down.  Visionary directors such as Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam still struggle at times to make magic happen film in and film out, so to nail it right out of the gate is perhaps too much to ask.  Helm is fortunate to have such a good cast in his debut, with Portman, Bateman and even young Zach Mills playing their parts well.  Hoffman's Magorium is a bit more problematic, as he is so eccentric, it can be somewhat distancing for adult viewers.  The part of his comic performance I might alter would be his lisp-y, cartoonish speech patterns and quirky mannerisms.  Even if it's difficult to get a handle on a man who is so out of synch with the real world, especially one that deals with magical objects and precocious children, I suppose it wouldn't be too far of a stretch to think that, over many decades, he became the congenial character he set out to be in order to entertain the kiddies spinning yarns of splendorous delights.

The film is short and sweet, playing more toward an innocent, childlike fairy tale than anything remotely considered adult in any sense of the word.  And yet, there's something refreshingly mature about the way it tells its story, dealing with such a heavy issue as death, a topic only rarely dealt with in films that target children.  The scene of death in question is about as gentle as can be, which I find commendable, as most filmmakers would have been going for a tugging of the heartstrings.  Even so, there is an emotional undercurrent that manifests from that point on, as those whose lives have been touched by Magorium's legacy stumble their way into directions of which they are uncertain.  Instead of a happy ending, it has a happy beginning (though one could argue that nearly all happy endings are really happy beginnings in movies). 

I write this realizing that the majority of film critics have already poo-pooed on this innocent tale that failed to stir them in their seats.  It's a feeling that, being a longtime film reviewer myself, I can understand, as there are some movies that hits you just right on certain days, when every other day might have yielded less of an impact.  After seeing films that shell out little more than noise, mayhem, titillation and crudeness, sometimes a corny and old-fashioned story like this is more than welcome.  For all of the sweep of Narnia, the tech of The Golden Compass, the adventure of The Spiderwick Chronicles, the slapstick of Fred Claus, and the special effects of Evan Almighty, it's this simple story of one really strange old man passing a reason to live and create enjoyment in others that managed to make me feel something more than just an admiration for the wizardry of CGI art. 

This is an honest-to-goodness story, not a cinematic event, and though easily-distracted adults may have outgrown simple fairy tales, it made me wonder just why stories like this have been missing from my life for so long.  You can call it clunky if you want, but I'd much rather entertain kids with Mr. Magorium than Daddy Day Camp any day.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo