MOVIE REVIEW- Toy store-y: <i>Mr. Magorium</i> could cast a pall

Special to The Hook

Dustin Hoffman is the main attraction in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, which might have been called Eric and the Bittersweet Chocolate Factory. It's what kids who got only a Bronze Ticket this year will have to settle for.

Hoffman shines as Mr. Magorium, who knows he's reaching the end of his 243-year lifespan because he's running out of the shoes he once stocked up on in Tuscany. He remains cheerful to the end, whether he's dancing or pulling his own eulogy out of King Lear, but Hoffman doesn't go over the top as he did in some recent films like Perfume– The Story of a Murderer. Lisping like Ed Wynn was a strange choice but isn't totally annoying.

Mr. Magorium owns a toy store in a big city. It's a magical place where the toys take on a life of their own– not when they're alone, as in Toy Story, but when the place is filled with children having interactive fun. Someone will have to take over the emporium, and the obvious choice is Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman, looking like Hilary Swank playing a 13-year-old boy), who runs the place now.

Mahoney has her own problems. A young piano prodigy, she's "stuck" at 23, unable to finish the concerto she's been trying to write, let alone go out into the world and fulfill the early promise she showed. (Increased responsibility at the store is supposed to help?)

Never having paid taxes, Mr. Magorium has 113 years' worth of receipts piled up in his office. It's time to hire an accountant to sort things out, even though he's not sure what one is. He thinks it sounds like a combination of "counting" and "mutant," so his new employee, Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), becomes known as "Mutant."

The story is narrated by 9-year-old Eric (Zach Mills), a boy with big eyes, big ears, a big grin, and no friends. He came home from camp early because he didn't get along with the other kids.  His mother finally tells him, "Pick someone you don't know and try to make friends with them," then gets upset when she comes home and finds Henry in Eric's room with him. (Eric has invited him there to see his hat collection.) She imagines the worst one can imagine in a G-rated movie and tells Henry to leave.

Innocent as it is, it's pretty creepy, especially since Henry is also the closest thing Molly has to a romantic possibility, and he's more than half again her age.

The owner's impending death and the possibility of his work not continuing cast a pall over the store, beginning in a darkening corner and spreading until the colorful emporium has turned to black and white. All will be made right in a splashy finale when the special effects go wild and the tentative score by Alexandre Desplat and Aaron Zigman reaches fruition as Mahoney completes her composition.

The movie starts shakily with animated credits that introduce the themes of bouncy balls and musical notes but don't follow through with either. The balls don't make it very far into the story, but the music never stops, although an opportunity is wasted by making the opening music as fun-challenged as Henry.

The first line of Eric's narration is odd: "This is one of my favorite stories of all time, even though it begins in a basement." Huh?

Zach Helm, whose script for Stranger than Fiction was far more imaginative and better developed, makes his directing debut with Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium and results are mixed at best. It seems aimed at younger children, but it's questionable how the talk of death will affect them– from depression to, if they embrace Mr. Magorium's positive attitude, perhaps encouraging budding suicide bombers. And Eric seems to have a choice between taking up with potential pedophiles and remaining a loner. Either way, he may shoot up his school in the sequel.

Helm's screenplay has some funny ideas around the edges, but too many are thrown out there without being developed or followed through on, and the central story that ties them together is weak.

A cameo appearance by Kermit the Frog could have had more impact, but more such outside references (without more product placement) would have been welcome. It's doubtful that Mr. Magorium's pet, Mortimer the Zebra, will ever reach the same heights as Kermit in the universe of fictional animals.


1 comment

I found this film a true joy. What a wonderful relief to have a movie without violence, sex or foul language. Thought the characters and actors were all great. Please, please, please, make us more like these. I knew when I saw the ads, with Dustin Hoffman in them, that I would have to see this movie. Would see it over and over.