November 21, 2007

Movie Review: Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is as blissfully cheery and tirelessly optimistic as the title would suggest. It is a light fantasy firmly targeted at the younger set, and perhaps to those who are just young at heart. This marks Zach Helm's first foray away from the keyboard and into the director's chair, taking up the reigns of his own script. Last year he made a splash with his fantastic script for Marc Forster's Stranger Than Fiction. Both films put Helm's imagination on display and make one wonder just what he could come up with next. However, despite the considerable ability that he possesses, and as delightfully smile inducing as Magorium is, the Emporium's doors are never completely opened to the possibilities. When the film ended and the lights came up I was left liking what I saw, but wondering just where the focus was. Yes, there was a single overriding thread, but there were enough frayed ends left over that it felt unfinished and me unfulfilled.

Dustin Hoffman stars as the title character, curator to the most curious of toy shops. It is no Kay-Bee or Toys 'R Us, oh no. The Wonder Emporium is filled front to back and top to bottom with toys that move as if they have lives of their own. The curiosities are not arranged in sterile narrow rows, rather there is a flow that encourages children to play with them and use their imaginations. This is not your typical toy store. Moving with the curiosity of a child and owner of endless curiosity Mr. Magorium makes his way around the fixtures, taking the time to listen to the kids and play with his creations; however, his is not the story that of central importance.

The primary thread belongs to Natalie Portman's Molly Mahoney. She manages the store's day-to-day operations, something the 243 year old Magorium could never do, his life is one of curiosity and creative inspiration, not cash transactions and inventories. However, as glorious as working in this shop would seem, it is not quite have the magical upside that Mahoney (throughout the film she is only referred to by her last name) is looking for. You see, Mahoney was a piano prodigy at a young age whose potential was never realized. She struggles with writing her music and feels trapped in a dead end position at the store. She lacks the necessary confidence in herself to move to the next level, despite her obvious skills. Funny, reminds me of someone else I know..... But I digress.

As the movie starts Mr. Magorium has a surprise for Mahoney. It starts with his cheerful optimism of the wonders the next stage of his life will bring. His death is approaching and his final wish is to turn over ownership reigns to young Mahoney. However, Mahoney's lack of confidence will not allow her to take the big step. To assist the transfer of ownership, Magorium hires an accountant to ascertain the store's worth and get the receipts in order. Enter the straitlaced Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), referred to throughout as the Mutant. He seems to be around to show us what happens when we are all work and no play.

Now, in addition to Mahoney's search for confidence and Magorium's preparation for his next phase of existence there are some other distractions thrown in. There is the matter of Bellini, a muscled brute who lives beneath the store building books and chronicling the life of Magorium. The nature of the store is brought up when it throws a temper tantrum. Not to mention young Eric Applebaum, a collector of hats and outcast who spends much of his time working the shop alongside Mahoney. Then we have the sock monkey's attraction to the Mutant. All of these threads add flavor to the film, but feel incomplete. Something tells me there is a lot of footage on the cutting room floor. Could an extended cut be in our future?

The obvious influence is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and as I write this the correlation between the two have become more obvious. Think of Mr. Magorium as the Willy Wonka to Molly Mahoney's (Natalie Portman) Charlie Bucket. With that relationship in mind, a world of comparison's open up. Fortunately, it doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of the fantasy.

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is so infectious that it is nearly impossible to smile. The performances are good, from Hoffman's over-the-top quirkiness to Natalie Portman's openness to magic but not herself, and Zach Mills as the little hat collector. Jason Bateman is decent as well, although the character is not used to his full potential.

While this not nearly as good as it could be, there is a lot to be said about the enthusiasm with which all involved handle the material. Zach Helm imbues the movie with energy and wit, as well as a fun brightly colored sheen. I only hope that his next outing is a little more fully formed.

Bottomline. Looking for a fun outing with the kids? Perhaps a movie that just aims to entertain and has a good heart? This will definitely fit the bill. I know that I had a smile on my face.



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