For a family film centering around a magical toy store and incorporating a fair share of visual effects to bring all of its inanimate remnants to convincing life, "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" strikes a low-key, even morose tone. To be sure, a few laughs slip through"Stop lying," demands 243-year-old shop owner Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) to his 23-year-old manager apprentice Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), "Don't you know your pants will catch on fire?"and the proceedings aren't without their charms. Still, underneath all of that lies a serious and touching tale about confronting death and the importance of making the most out of one's life.
Kids will mostly be enthralled by the candy-coated cinematography by Roman Osin (2006's "The Return
"), as well as the narration by 9-year-old outsider Eric (Zach Mills) that divides the tale into individual storybook chapters. Hopefully, they will also get something out of the movie's universal themes, which parents should appreciate if they haven't already shared 2007's superior "Bridge to Terabithia
" with them. For a big holiday release, though, couldn't writer-director Zach Helm have found a way to keep things a little more peppy and cheerful? With only fleeting moments of frivolity tucked between long passages where characters chat and soul-search, "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" does not begin to reach the soaring heights of like-minded fantasies such as 1971's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and 1985's "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." There's simply not enough pep for that. The good news is that it's a whole lot more useful and resourceful than 2006's mystifyingly popular "Night at the Museum
," and, unlike so many children's pics, it retains a G-rating by avoiding to stoop to even the barest hints of rude humor and bathroom gags.
A couple hundred years ago, avid shoe-wearer Mr. Edward Magorium bought enough pairs to last him a very long lifetime. In the interim, he gave toys to Napoleon, played hopscotch with Abraham Lincoln, and opened a toy store that captured the limitless imaginations of generations of children. As Mr. Magorium tells straight-laced new accountant Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), he is now down to his last pair and is only days away from his final departure. When the store learns of its master's impending demise, it rebels by overthrowing his command and slowly turning itself a yucky gray pallor. It is now up to manager Molly Monahan, a meek aspiring pianist, to take over the store for Mr. Magorium and restore the shop to the glorious way it once was. Only problem is, she's not sure she wants, or can even handle, the responsibilities of running everything on her own.
"Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" comes close to being better than it is, but, despite writer-director Zach Helm's auspicious attempts, it never kicks into the high gear he wants it to. Alternately so airy as to threaten to float away and weighty enough that not every viewer eye will be dry by the end, the film frustrates even as it wins you over. On one side, the plot is thin, the characters and their conflicts are boiled down to just a few key defining traits, and the scenes of magic at work within the Wonder Emporium are too brief to be memorable. In addition, one of the subplots in which Molly struggles to complete her own musical piece is messily dropped before any conclusion comes to it.
On the other side, the characters are an irresistible lot, warm and amiable enough that spending 94 minutes with them is painless joy. The maturity level with which the story is dealt with is also a major attribute, never talking down to children and treating the subject of one's mortality with a straightforward honesty that all the while remains tactful. When Mr. Magorium observes to Molly that the sad part about death is not that the people are gone, but in the memories of what those people did when they were on the earth, it is a powerful notion because of how true it is.
Dustin Hoffman (2006's "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
") is wonderful and one of a kind as eternal kid-at-heart Mr. Magorium, committed to portraying the title character as someone of the purest of pure hearts and the most honorable of intentions. The initial worry was that Hoffman would be too broad and manic in the part, but this concern dissipates immediately upon witnessing how believably he disappears into the character. Natalie Portman (2005's "V for Vendetta
"), smiling on film for the first time in years, is always a pleasant presence, and her Molly is a lead protagonist worth wanting to follow. As the stuffy Henry Weston who rediscovers his youth, Jason Bateman (2007's "The Kingdom
") gets better and more irresistible with every film, and the last twelve months have been particularly kind to him. And as Eric, the hat-collecting kid with a personal love of the Wonder Emporium, Zach Mills (2006's "Hollywoodland
") is an old soul, earnest and wise without being annoying. The friendship he forms with Henry is one of the film's sweetest aspects.
Not without its flaws, "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is a minor but honorable effort that kids and adults will be able to enjoy together or apart. Unhurried and blessedly less than chaotic, director Zach Helm has strived to lead a quality project that is notably more worthwhile than, say, irredeemable trash like "Are We Done Yet?
" and "Daddy Day Camp
." He succeeds with flying colorsliterallyand, though the results are not quite as whimsical as one might presume from the flashier theatrical trailers, the film makes up for it in warm-hearted good will that moralizes without sermonizing.