On a whole, you’ve got to root for a movie whose sole purpose is to celebrate the inner child so many adults have lost. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium sets out to do this by combining the quirkiness of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and the zaniness of The Cat in the Hat. With such lofty goals, it is easy to lose sight of the prize. Sadly, such is the case with this film.
The reason for Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium shortcomings doesn’t lie with the premise of a magical toy store or with the story itself. I actually thought it was an intriguing idea to have a store that breathes and exhibits emotions — just like the humans that it works so hard to keep happy. I’m also a huge proponent of keeping the inner child alive and kicking – so many adults have lost touch with what really matters. The failure rests on the awkward way the story is told and with the characters that we’re supposed to feel a connection with.
Dustin Hoffman is Edward Magorium, the bizarre, eccentric proprietor of the toy store. He’s 243 years-old and has decided he needs a permanent rest, so he figures to hand the reigns over to Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), the store manager and a girl he views as his very own daughter. Problem is, the store isn’t particularly happy about that scenario or the fact that Magorium has brought in an accountant, Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), to inspect the books prior to the transfer. Needless to say, it takes a child named Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills) to help all the parties involved (store included) to not only accept the changes but to revel in them.
The first thing I took notice of is the movie is disjointed and just too damn busy. The main purpose of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is to highlight the need for people to stop and smell the roses, and to embrace change. Yet a great deal of time is spent veering away from that premise and instead placed on inconsequential scenes like admitting Mr. Magorium into a hospital or having him experience life outside the business walls. And when the movie does try to get back to basics, it’s easy to get overwhelmed since much of it takes place in the store itself. Planes flying here, balls bouncing there, rocket ships flying through the sky, kids running all about – it was all too much to swallow in a single bite (or even two or three). I understand the need to drive home the principle that the store can magically make magnificent things happen and appear, but showcasing so many examples took away from the “cool factor” and just left me with a “big deal yawn”. Perhaps if less time was devoted to force feeding all the things the emporium could dream up and more time was spent on a better mix of characters, the second issue wouldn’t have been raised.
That issue being how quickly I realized how disinterested I was with the characters. Mr. Magorium isn’t lovable or quirky – he’s annoying as hell. Dustin Hoffman, it seems, thought to reenact his Oscar winning performance in Rain Man here. This time however, he figured he could make the character cute by adding an aggravating lisp to his speech pattern. It doesn’t work. Natalie Portman, whom I adore, was as wooden as a toy soldier from Babes in Toyland. I didn’t believe for a second she was a musical prodigy or a girl with an innocent, childlike look on life. Plain and simple, I thought she was a slacker – comfortable in the little niche she found herself in and not willing to take a risk. Jason Bateman is the only actor in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium who shows an ounce of range whatsoever. He starts off as a crotchety guy who lives for the job and ultimately transforms himself into a person who rediscovers that the little, silly moments in life are the ones that add up to make life worth living.
I applaud Zach Helm for realizing the need for a good old fashioned kids film without animated bees or barnyard/wild animals that talk and act like people. While those movies do have their place, they certainly can’t compete with a well-made movie that can connect with the hearts and minds of a child. No, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium isn’t that movie either, but it is very encouraging to see the attempt be made with such gusto. Maybe next time.