Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

Posted on March 3, 2008 at 5:12 pm

There’s nothing harder to get right in a movie than whimsy. And there are few clumsier crashes when it goes wrong. What could have been a charmingly whimsical children’s book becomes an arch and sugary movie, its failures of tone and timing hitting its lightweight storyline like a blast of cold air on a fragile souffle. This is one flat souffle.

Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is a merry old soul who lives with a zebra and a very large collection of tsotchkes over his magical toy store. Magorium’s only employee is Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), once a promising pianist and composer. She can not finish her concerto. And while she loves the toy store, she feels that she has to move on to find her “sparkle.” Eric (Zach Mills) is a boy with a hat collection who helps at the store but does not have any friends other than Mahoney and Mr. Magorium. And Henry (Jason Bateman) is an accountant who discovers that the store does not seem to have any of the appropriate paperwork. He is what Mahoney calls a “just” guy because he thinks the Emporium is “just” a store.
Mr. Magorium announces that he is going to leave and it becomes clear that he means he is going to die. Mahoney, Eric, and Zach must all learn something about endings and beginnings and taking chances and about themselves to keep the store from sulking and fuming and bring back the magic.
Everyone tries very hard, which is part of the problem. The story calls for a light touch, but everything is heavy and underscored. Hoffman seems very excited by his false teeth, speech impediment, and determindly goofy persona, but instead of coming across like an agreeably dotty soul with more important things to think about than reality and all those other grown-up things, he bangs every line like he is hitting it with a hammer. Only Bateman shows some sense of the right understated tone, though perhaps that is because he is playing a repressed character who carries a briefcase.
The sets are overstuffed instead of imaginative. The special effects are not very…special. The technology is fine, but the ideas behind it are not especially inventive. In real life a ball bounces. In this story, the balls are very big and bouncy. Not too exciting. Most of the toys on the shelves will be familiar to anyone who has ever been in a museum store. And most of the story focuses on Magorium’s farewell, including a completely unnecessary diversion to a hospital and this exchange of dialogue: “I’m wearing pants!” “So am I!” It struggles to find charm in a boy’s hat collection and struggles even more to find humor in dubbing Henry “Mutant” on the theory that accountant means someone who can count and is a mutuant. The movie’s attempts at humor are so forced and gooey that I did not so much exit the movie as scrape it off my shoe.
Small children may enjoy the visuals, but they may be disturbed by the sad loss at the heart of the story. Older children are more likely to find it dull. The only wonder to be found will be speculation on how much more movie before everyone can go home.
Parents should know that the movie has brief schoolyard language and a sad (offscreen) death, with scenes at a funeral.
Family discussion: If you went to Mr. Magorium’s store, what would you pick to play with? Why was it hard for Eric to make friends? Which of his hats did you like the best? Why does Mahoney call Mr. Magorium “sir?” What does Henry mean about people having different ways to show they care?
If you like this, try: the book or movie versions of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and The Westing Game or Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and its sequels.

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Family Issues Fantasy

7 Replies to “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”

  1. Great site so far, Nell. I will be frequenting here from now on.
    I saw “Mr. Magorium’s…” last inight and was torn about it. I agree with you that for a film that is supposed to be whimsical, this one has an usually somber and not very joyful undercurrent. At the same time, I do believe kids will like it (the theater I saw it in last night was busy and boisterous with children, who didn’t make a peep once the movie started) and I had to admire it for not having any bathroom humor in sight. How refeshing! I also really respected it for its forthright treatment on death and morality. At the end of the day, I liked it with reservations. Of course, you can go read my review now for a more in-depth review (shameless plug).

  2. One other thing…I am disturbed by the spelling errors in my last post but cannot fix them. Thus, “inight” should be “night,” “usually” should be “unusually,” and “morality” should be “mortality.” Now I feel a whole lot better!

  3. I really love this movie! I agree with you though, Nelly. The humor was too gooey. I really wanted to use the humor goo for lotion too. See you soon at Ovoi French School!

  4. My sister and I took 5 children, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9 to this movie last week. Our circumstance is a little different because my mother died 2 years ago and the children were very close to her. I think the movie did our group of kids a great deal of good. The theme of death was addressed in a way that our kids could appreciate, relate to and benefit from. There was a positive message about how we remember those we love and how death is a very natural part of life, and something you can’t fight.
    The holidays can be especially hard for us all, so I did appreciate the movie. I would highly recommend it to families in similar circumstances. All of the children remained engaged for the whole movie.

  5. In the negative degreed Minnesota afternoon, with three young wild children taking over and outnumbering me, I decided to finally haul them out to see a movie. Being the oldest is only 8 and the youngest is 3, the only G rated movie that was available at this particular theatre was Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. I, being the film aficionado, sat with mouth agape waiting for Dustin Hoffman to spring to life and, well, act. I never expected much out of Natalie Portman; it’s jut not her forte regardless of her decided profession. Bateman? Wow, he hell it together well… as an accountant. Almost believably until I disturbingly witnessed him in a jester hat. Actually, only disturbing because it is far too reminiscent of many of my afternoons trying to entertain children. Whimsical in nature? Yes. To the point it could have been done? Not even close. I was disappointed, but in love with a few of the lines. Poignant castings of “life is an occasion. Rise to it.” A little too deep for such a movie, but at least gave me food for thought while I was waiting for something more. All three children were blissful and, for once, not up and running amok through the theatre. No shock and awe, no cars blowing up, no twisted, demented humor that kids shouldn’t catch but always do. I have to say, all it all, for the children, it’s a great movie. And, for the adults, it’s an hour and a half to not have to chase around children.

  6. Luna, your comments are wonderfully thoughtful and very entertaining. Glad to hear that the movie worked for your family.

  7. Orson Welles once said that as a cardinal rule for the success of American motion pictures is not to have two Jews in the same scene. Mr. Magorium etc. via Hoffman & Portman we have for the entire movie, and for Christmas too.

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