“Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”, the new film directed by Zach Helm (who wrote “Stranger Than Fiction”), starring Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman and Justin Batemen, wants to be the next “Willy Wonka” but it has too little conflict, too little narrative and, most importantly, too little magic to make it the next Family classic.
Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman sporting a haircut that looks like he was just riding a motorcycle and gelled into place and a strange lisp which is meant to make him seem childlike) is the owner of a strange and wonderful toy store in the middle of Manhattan. As soon as he opens the store everyday, the toys come to life and children stop by to play with the creatures all day every day. His store manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) was once a promising concert pianist, but can not find the last notes to complete her first concerto. All day, every day, her fingers play the notes on an imaginary keyboard until she comes to the end and can no longer play the remainder. One day, Mr. Magorium announces he is leaving, and will leave the store to Molly. Because of this, he hires an accountant, Weston (Justin Bateman) to come in and figure out what the store is worth and to set the accounts in order. The narrator of the film, a young boy named Eric (Zach Mills) hangs around all day and observes everything, narrating the film much like a picture book, complete with chapters. And he has a hat collection, which provide an endless supply of unusual chapeaus for his head.
“Mr. Magorium” tells a fairly simple story with relatively few characters. Each of these characters is awkward and uncomfortable with their place in the world, but Magorium is the only one who seems to embrace it. Hoffman’s Magorium is a strange fellow who has a machine that dresses him in the morning, a zebra in his apartment, and a strange, wonderful store. He walks around with a wide-eyed innocence, despite claiming to be over one hundred years old. Hoffman certainly seems to be having fun playing the eccentric, but the performance just doesn’t go far enough. There is little depth to the character. He owns this strange and wonderful shop and wants to leave it to Molly after he leaves, in a way, to help her. That’s it. Despite some scenes of Magorium playing with the kids in his shop, there are no other layers to his character. Everything else is mentioned in passing; he s over 100 years old, the reason he is leaving, etc. Just hearing these wild statements isn’t really enough to make him strange and wonderful.
Also, because the film is rated ‘G’, there is no possibility of making him even the slightest bit dark. In “Willy Wonka” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, both Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp made it clear, in subtle and unsubtle ways, Wonka doesn’t really like kids. He then puts the bad kids through their paces, trying to find out who should take over his empire. In just about any great Family film, there is some sort of darkness, some sort of menace. In “Magorium”, the only darkness comes when the store seems to miss Magorium’s presence. Because he isn’t around, everything turns black and gray, waiting for someone to reawaken the spirit and flavor of the magic it once knew.
But this isn’t enough to provide anything but a mildly pleasant diversion.
Molly appears to be that person, the person who will take over the shop. Magorium’s trusted manager, she knows many of the secrets and loves working there, meeting all of the (remarkably) well-behaved children. But when Magorium first mentions he will be leaving, and why, she is unsettled. What will happen to her career as a composer? What happened to the promise of her performances as a pianist? She still has hope, because she reflexively plays the piano with her hand all day. But taking over the store seems like it will definitely close the chapter on one part of her life.
Natalie Portman is a good choice for this role because she has a wide-eyed innocence about her that lending itself well to the character. But she is just kind of bland. She loves working for Magorium and loves the store. There is a slight amount of conflict when the accountant (Bateman) shows up. See, he doesn’t believe in the store and this irks her to no end. But because the film is rated ‘G’, there isn’t even any possibility of a romantic relationship between them.
Strangely, Eric and Weston become friends. Eric is a strange, lonely kid who finds solace at Magorium’s store. He has no friends, and his mother worries about him, but he enjoys lending a hand. So what if he sees some kids playing with Lincoln Logs and the urge strikes him to build a lifelike statue of Lincoln using the Logs. Every day he comes to the store, he is wearing a different hat and he seems to enjoy the eccentricity. He believes wholeheartedly in the magic of Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.
Weston, played by Justin Bateman, is an accountant and doesn’t believe in the store. He is there to set the records in order and he has a lot of work to do. Because he doesn’t believe, Molly can barely tolerate him. Because he doesn’t believe, Eric feels the need to help him realize the magic. Gradually, they become friends and talk and Weston asks about the hat collection. Eric offers to take him home and show him the collection and Weston is simply amazed; every wall of his room is covered in hats. They begin to play pirates and Eric’s mother comes home to find them jumping around on the bed. Hmmmmmmm.
Naturally, Molly will realize two things. She will realize how to bring Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium back to life and she will realize how to complete her concerto. Will they be related?
But before this happens, we have to sit through a veeeeerrrrrryyyyyy slow second act in which she decides to sell the store and entertains offers from other people, because her first inclination is to get rid of the store. Naturally, after working with Magorium for years, learning all about his store, his passions, his life, her first inclination is to sell the store. I’m being sarcastic. This moment seems completely false. All it shows is that Molly has learned nothing from Magorium.
And perhaps we haven’t either.