At first glance, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium looks like a rip-off of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Instead of Gene Wilder playing a magical candy maker who wills his operation to a young boy, this one stars Dustin Hoffman as a magical toy store owner willing his operation to Natalie Portman. As tempting as it might be to write the film off for that very similarity, there’s more to the story than is initially apparent. How much you like it will, to some degree, depend on your tolerance for whimsy. Mine’s pretty high, I guess, so I found this to be a surprisingly enjoyable movie.
Mr. Magorium’s shop is nestled in between a couple Manhattan skyscrapers – the last vestige of a bygone era in toy sales. It is a place that contains real magic within its walls. The customers all think everything’s a trick; the only ones who know the truth are Magorium himself, his young assistant Mahoney (Portman), and Eric (Zach Mills), a little boy who is friendless despite seeming like one of the most genuinely cool kids on earth.
At age 243, Magorium decides – or realizes – that his time is up and he must “depart.” To put his books in order, he brings in an accountant named Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), a.k.a. “Mutant.” (Magorium theorizes that “accountant” is a shortened version of “a counting mutant”.) Henry doesn’t believe the shop is magic, thinks Magorium is basically an old weirdo, and finds the tiniest bit of empathy for Eric. He also finds himself worried about Mahoney, who feels directionless in life. Learning that she’s going to inherit the store does little to make her feel better. Unable to imagine life without her magical mentor, Mahoney feels more lost than ever. She tries to persuade Magorium to stay, but he insists that he simply cannot. The only one who mourns his imminent demise more than her is the store itself, which stops performing magic and starts turning gray in an act of revolt.
At its core, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is less about Magorium and more about Mahoney. She refuses to accept his decision to depart and, subsequently, has to decide how to carry on with her own life following this curveball. Much of her reluctance to take over the store has to do with a desire to avoid the situation altogether, as though not accepting the property will somehow prevent Magorium from leaving. Without ever being heavy-handed or sentimental, the film addresses issues of death, mourning, and “moving on” in a way that is appropriate and inspiring for kids of all ages. Call it a feel-good movie about death, if you will.
Hoffman and Portman give solid performances, bringing some depth of emotion to their characters in the midst of elaborate sets, special effects, and flights of fancy. Without that human element, the movie would certainly fall apart. Also doing fine work is Jason Bateman as the accountant who tries to figure out the store’s books. He shares one of my favorite movie scenes of the year with young Zach Mills, as the kid tries to strike up a friendship with Henry by writing messages back-and-forth with him through a window.
Despite how it sounds, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is never a downer. There are lots of laughs, as well as moments of great imagination and wit. The famous song from Mary Poppins says that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” and that idea applies here. By filling every square inch of the screen with magic toys and delightful visual effects, writer/director Zach Helm (Stranger Than Fiction) provides a safe way to address some tougher issues with kids in a way that isn’t off-putting or manipulative.
In fact, this is often a very funny film – assuming, as I said, that you like whimsy. This is the kind of picture where toys play with themselves, and a zebra wanders around someone’s living room, and a magical book creates anything that a child wishes for. Scattered throughout are lots of little throwaway jokes as well. (Listen closely to the loudspeaker announcements in the hospital scene.) For me, the funniest bit involves Magorium wearing one of those “Hi! My Name Is” nametags, on which he has filled in the words “not Steve.” Granted, not everyone likes this kind of humor, but I do and I bet a lot of kids will too.
Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium’s ultimate message, perhaps, is that there is no death – there is only transition. After all, as long as you leave a legacy, you never really go away. Earlier I quoted Mary Poppins, but I’m also reminded of the old “Fat Albert” cartoon. At the end of the theme song, Bill Cosby would take about having fun but throw in that “you might learn something before it’s done.” That’s the movie, to a tee.
( out of four)
Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
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