Judge Erich Asperschlager once inherited a magical toy store. His adventures there are an epic and wondrous story that ends with him turning it into a magical strip club.
"Anything can happen. How absolutely true."
Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a charming family fairy tale as packed to the gills with style as its titular store is with all manner of magical playthings. Sweet, clever, and funny, this expression of writer-director Zach Helm's infectious optimism asks the audience to remember what it was like to be a child. Seen through world-weary grown-up eyes, the characters might seem thin, and the "you can do anything if you believe in yourself" message trite—but those able to leave that cynicism at the door will find fun around every corner.
Facts of the Case
Nestled between two city high-rise buildings is a magical toy store called Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Its owner, a bushy-eyebrowed, 243-year-old inventor named Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie), has decided the time has come to depart this life, and so he begins preparations to give the store to his capable assistant, former musical prodigy Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman, Garden State). Mahoney, meanwhile, is facing a crossroads of her own: having hit a dead end in the piano concerto she's been writing for years, she's wondering whether it's finally time to "grow up" and move on with her life. To help get his affairs in order, Mr. Magorium hires an accountant (a professional title he assumes is a combination of "counting" and "mutant") named Henry Weston (Jason Bateman, Juno) to go through a century's worth of dusty receipts and unfiled paperwork. Weston finds it as difficult to adjust to his strange new working environment as 9-year-old Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause)—Lincoln Log architect and hat collector extraordinaire—feels at home there. When Mahoney learns of Mr. Magorium's plans and preparations, she struggles with the loss of her mentor, as well as the feeling that she doesn't have the "sparkle" it will take to carry on his legacy.
What Mr. Magorium gets right that so many movies about kids get wrong is the unbridled possibility of imagination. In these days of Tolkein-inspired family fantasy, it's refreshing to see a film that gets back to basics: kids love toys.
Part Wonka, part Raymond, and part Ed Wynn, Dustin Hoffman's Edward Magorium is the right balance of the believable and the impossible. At first glance, Hoffman's overbite and wild hairdo just seem weird for weirdness' sake, but he launches himself into the character with such glee it's hard not to get swept up in his excitement. Like the mischievous chocolate maker Gene Wilder made famous, Magorium is a compelling character because Hoffman plays him with sincerity. There are some genuinely touching monologues among the malapropisms and tongue-twisters. When Mr. Magorium says good-bye to Moahoney, for example, he gives a touching speech that not only includes advice like "Your life is an occasion, rise to it," but a beautiful meditation on how Shakespeare ended King Lear's life with two simple words: "He dies."
Hoffman is backed up in the acting department by three co-stars, who each play a character at a different place on the kid-to-adult continuum. Relative newcomer Zach Mills takes on the adult-sized role of young Eric Applebaum. Eric acts as a Mini-Magorium of sorts—narrating the story and reminding the wayward adults of the childlike faith necessary to experience the store's magic. Had they given this role to the wrong child, I'm not sure the film could have been salvaged. Fortunately, Mills has the right mix of young actor and old soul to pull off a precociousness that isn't annoying.
With her slight frame and short hair, who better than Natalie Portman to play Mahoney, who struggles with living in limbo between childhood and being an adult? Though she doesn't quite exude the kind of authority one expects is necessary to run a successful supernatural toy store, she's a more-than-capable actress. The scenes between her and Hoffman—especially the one in which they say their goodbyes—are among the best in the film.
Fans of Arrested Development will notice more than a little Michael Bluth in accountant Henry Weston. (Jason Bateman seems to have cornered the market on uptight responsible adult as much as former co-star Michael Cera has nervous adolescent.) Of the four primary actors, he's unfortunately the least utilized. Helm could have done a lot more with the idea of introducing a down-to-earth numbers man into Magorium's bizarre world—especially given how ably Bateman feigns shock at the ageless store owner's bizarre business expenses.
Last of the main characters (but certainly not least) is the toy store itself—an architectural mishmash filled with toys of every kind, style, and era. The Emporium is almost always on screen—giving Zach Helm plenty of excuses to focus on people playing with toys. While that might sound boring, we're talking about magical toys here, folks. And lots of them. Though Helm could have just stocked the shelves with CGI merchandise, he and production designer Terésè Deprez collected 10,000-plus toys from shops across America and Europe, filling the Wonder Emporium's 7,000 square feet with enough dolls, balls, rockets, Slinkys, games, paints, life-sized stuffed animals, trains, balloons, and blocks to make FAO Schwartz look like an October yard sale. The toys are the stars of a series of whimsical vignettes which break up the main story. There are the three boys who sneak into a hidden bouncing ball room and discover a giant undodgeable dodge ball; "The Book," a massive catalog capable of conjuring any in-stock item a customer requests; a game of Duck Duck Goose played with an actual goose; and a life-sized statue of Abraham Lincoln built out of the toy logs that bear his name. There's even a cameo appearance by Kermit the Frog as your average celebrity trying to shop without attracting too much attention.
Though this film begs comparison with the work of Roald Dahl, Mr. Magorium's refusal to introduce any real suspense or danger puts this in a different class of kids film—one in which suspension of disbelief extends beyond acceptance of magic to not asking why a parent would willingly bring their child to a store that sells self-aware playthings. And what about Henry Weston? Shouldn't his discovery that Mr. Magorium has never paid taxes require him to alert the IRS? Not, apparently, in this film. Instead, the problems characters face are internal—issues of self-confidence, trouble making friends, lack of imagination—and easily solved by simply believing in yourself. The lack of serious conflict didn't bother me, though. Mr. Magorium's "death" (though treated more as departure than the end of a life) and Mahoney's crisis of faith are enough to give the story emotional weight. It's actually refreshing to watch a movie this "safe." I'm not going to say kids should be lied to about the difficulties of life, but there's no reason everything they see in movies or on TV should focus on the negative.
Colorful and energetic, Mr. Magorium is a feast for the eyes. From the memorable title sequence and the store's overflowing nooks and crannies, to Eric's massive hat collection and Mr. Magorium's wild eyebrows, the film is packed with details the DVD transfer shows off beautifully. The score, though a little bombastic at times, works with Helm's kinetic direction to create a fantastic world where the only thing children are expected to do is play.
The extras are all fairly standard making-of featurettes. Presented in widescreen, they focus on the actors, director, set design, screenplay, and what it's like to work with a live zebra. There's no commentary, which is too bad (though it's not really the kind of extra you'd expect the film's target audience to clamor for). They're almost all worth a look—the only clunker is backstage-antics montage "Fun on the Set."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This isn't a movie for everyone. What I saw as charming, others might see as overly saccharine. It's certainly not a film I'd expect a group of 20-something guys to pop in the DVD player on a Saturday night. But if you've got kids, or just want to watch something that expresses a worldview that isn't dripping with cynicism, give it a try.
And while I enjoyed the film, I wouldn't put it on the same level as time-tested family classics like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Mary Poppins. I can't quite put my finger on what it is, but Mr. Magorium doesn't feel like the kind of movie you'll go around quoting years from now. It's fun while you're watching it, but even the nicest of dreams have a tendency to fade by morning.
With a top-notch cast, a clever script, stylish design, and a heartwarming story, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a wonderful family film that's not only for the 10-and-under set. If you've ever walked by a toy and had to restrain yourself from picking it up, this is the movie for you. Even if you have to watch it with a kid to maintain plausible deniability, give it a try. Your inner child will thank you.
There's no way I'm gonna tick off a temperamental magic toy store. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• "Strangely Weird and Weirdly Strange: The Magical World Of A Wonder Emporium"
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