Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's something a little annoying about a movie that tries this shamelessly to be endearing and family friendly. Typically, these kinds of films feature Santa Claus in a significant role. Here, there is no Santa but there is a 243-year old guy named Mr. Magorium and he pretty much fills the same function (although he is not played by Tim Allen). The production is devoid of anything resembling dramatic conflict. The set design, production values, and general sense of good will are pleasant enough for a while but a film needs more than it offers to succeed past the first 20 minutes. Younger viewers will probably appreciate what Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium has to offer more than their mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles, which places this more in the realm of a "kids' movie" than a "family feature."

The story unspools almost entirely within the confines of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, a toy store that makes FAO Schwartz look like a K-Mart. The magical, mystical place, where anything is possible, is presided over by the irrepressible Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), who has owned it for over a century. But he's getting ready to shuffle off this mortal coil, and has designated his successor to be Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), the short-haired pixie who has worked at the store since she was in her early teens. Molly, despite being only 23, is suffering through a mid-life crisis and doesn't necessarily appreciate what her boss is offering her. Two other characters provide conflicting advice. Nine-year-old Eric (Zach Mills), who is a believer, wants Mahoney to keep the magic alive. Henry Weston (a.k.a. the "Counting Mutant"), an accountant hired by Mr. Magorium to assess the store's value, advises Mahoney to approach ownership with an eye to the practical aspects of business.

The move gives us plenty of pretty sights and sounds within the store. None of the toys the kids play with are "cool" in a conventional sense, but their magic makes them special. A place like Mr. Magorium's, if it existed, might be sufficient to get a few children away from their Wiis and PS3s. Quite a bit of invention went into developing the Emporium and its wares, but there was also invention present in Jumanji and A Night at the Museum, and neither of those was creatively successful. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium lavishes so much intention on the toy store that it forgets that characters should be more vital and interesting than their surroundings, no matter how magical the setting may be.

The characters in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium are uniformly uninteresting. The title individual, played by Dustin Hoffman in a screen turn that will not earn him Oscar consideration, looks a little like Willy Wonka but acts more like Clarence the angel with a lisp. One has a right to expect more from a veteran actor like Hoffman even if he isn't given much to work with. Meanwhile, Natalie Portman has us longing for the young actress who once showed so much promise. Maybe the Star Wars prequels ruined her or maybe the haircut's the problem but, whatever the reason, her heart no longer seems to be in acting. Had I not seen him really shining in Juno, I might be tempted to give Jason Bateman a pass.

Ultimately, there's no way to sugarcoat it to be gentler to first-time director Zach Helm: Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a bore. For plot arcs, it offers a woman with self-esteem issues learning to believe in herself, a skeptic accepting magic, and an old coot with a bad hairdo dying. It's plodding and at times tedious and it never really goes anywhere. One can call it charming, but that's like characterizing the ugly girl as "having a great personality." Even many of those viewers who salivate at the thought of how delightful it might be to explore a Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium in the real world will be less than thrilled to spend 90 minutes visiting it on screen.

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (United States, 2007)

Director: Zach Helm
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Zach Mills, Jason Bateman
Screenplay: Zach Helm
Cinematography: Roman Osin
Music: Alexandre Desplat, Aaron Zigman
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2007-11-16
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1