I developed a little crush on Zach Helm (“the new Charlie Kaufmann”) after watching his screenwriting debut, Stranger than Fiction, last year, and after seeing Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, which he wrote and directed, I may just be falling in love. Indeed, everything that is wrong about Emporium, namely that it is a kid’s movie that stubbornly refuses to speak on the same level as the target demographic, only increases my affection for the man’s work. It doesn’t make for a particularly great viewing experience for either children — because it’s a little too mature — or adults — because of all those toys and the obnoxious Jumanji-like effects — but if you can somehow draw upon that childlike reverie inside of you while also watching Emporium with an adult’s eye, it’s a winsome, fluttery experience that doesn’t come along too often. Unfortunately, in seeking — it seems — not to bog Emporium down in blobs of sentimentality, I think that Helm undersells the picture to a degree, and for that, I appreciate the director even more. He could’ve easily manipulated the heartstrings, but in trying to earn your tears, he comes up a little short.
Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is about a magical toy shop that runs on the karmic energy of Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), a 243-year-old toy impresario, who is part Willy Wonka, party Nutty Professor (the Jerry Lewis version) and part Rain Man. He decides one day, after living a very full life, that he’s ready to depart the world and leave his store to Molly Monahan (Natalie Portman), formerly a child prodigy, but who is now stuck in a creative rut, unable to complete her signature composition. Magorium hires a cynical, non-believing accountant, Henry Weston (affectionately known as “the Mutant”) (Jason Bateman, playing Will Ferrell’s Fiction role), to put his house in order, so to speak, before Magorium heads off to Shangri-La at his appointed time, 4:30 p.m. the next day. However, the Wonder Emporium, which has a life of its own, grows petulant with Magorium’s decision to abandon it, so it gives up its magic after he departs, and it is up to Molly and Henry, with a great deal of assistance from nine-year-old Eric Applebaum, the hat collector (Zach Mills), to bring the store and its magic back to life.
Hoffman is actually the weakest part of the film. He kooks and stutters and bobbles around like a toy soldier dressed in a suit who decides to give up soldiering in favor of a career as a mad scientist — he’s too eccentric to curry favor with adults and too creepy to for kids to enjoy. But no matter; Natalie Portman, who plays his apprentice and the manager of the store, is … well, she is lovely. She has an Audrey Hepburn luminosity that glows under soft focus and gives off a radiant cinematic energy that I always forget about when I’m not seeing it up close, though if you’re not into quirky self-awareness, both Portman and her character may rub you the wrong way. Bateman is also surprisingly well cast as the straight-laced “just man” and it’s kind of cool to see Bateman’s trademark “AD” dryness give in to the magical wonder of the store; in fact, seeing him draw from his inner child even briefly, triggered memories of his role on “Silver Spoons” (he was pre-Alfonso Ribiero).
But if you and your cold heart aren’t into whimsy and fancy, or if Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry have sapped you dry, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium will probably annoy you to death with all its quirks and precious sweetness. The bombardment of special effects and bright colors, likewise, can be a little blinding at times. It’s one shiny penny after another, mercilessly distracting attention away from an otherwise sweet story, though the F.A.O. Schwartzness of it all is also the only part of Emporium likely to keep the kids’ minds preoccupied (it was a packed theater full of restless lil’ ones at the screening I attended).
Moreover, Emporium will probably suffer from far too many comparisons to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and I actually think that’s unfair. While the narrative — eccentric genius handing over his workshop to an heir with the right sense of wonder and appreciation — bears something in common with Wonka, the themes are far more similar to Harold and Maude. When Mr. Magorium, after fulfilling his last few wishes, chooses to die under his own terms, as Maude did, it is up to Molly to decide whether to mourn his death or pick up her banjo (or conductor’s stick, in this instance) and celebrate the life he had and its affect on her. Indeed (*obvious spoiler alert*), the only thing missing when Molly finally brings that store’s magic back to life is Cat Stevens’ “If You Want to Sing Out,” but then again, Helm is a little too smart to make it that obvious.
There is a lot in Emporium that doesn’t work; the execution of a fun idea, for one, is erratic at best; Hoffman is terrible — it’s a performance more embarrassing even than his turn in Meet the Fockers; there’s not a lot of dramatic tension in the film; and the look and style often feel like they were bought at a second-hand Tim Burton shop. And maybe, on a different day, I would’ve disliked Mr. Magorium’s Magic Emporium. But today, I went in determined to see the film as a kid might, and while the little boy in me was disappointed with the movie, he was able to put aside his critical faculties so that the adult in me could appreciate the wonder and magic that I think Helm intended.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | November 18, 2007 | Comments ()