Movie review by Greg Carlson
Upon seeing the trailer for “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” many weeks ago, my friend Jim Shands asked whether “The Simpsons” hadn’t already said it better with Troy McClure in “The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.” “The Simpsons” often manages to cut to the quick of manufactured whimsy packaged as entertainment, and “Magorium” writer-director Zach Helm should have swallowed a much needed dose of vinegar to temper the syrup he cannot wait to spoon all over the place. Fancy-titled movies aimed at young audiences are not inherently detestable, but most of them suffer a grim fate when they fail to include material that can appeal to grown-ups as well.
Borrowing liberally from Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl to name just two, Helm skirts the boundaries of familiar fantasy stories. Mr. Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is the 243-year old proprietor of a toy shop that appears to experience human emotions. Inexplicably preparing for death (always referred to in irritatingly fuzzy euphemisms), the aged magician makes known his desire to leave the store to longtime manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a blocked composer struggling to finish a major opus. Despite Magorium’s entreaties, Mahoney refuses to accept his impending departure, and Helm reveals a deep “Harold and Maude” fetish as the story plays out between the youngster and the senior citizen.
In addition to the generational transfer of wisdom, Helm inappropriately conjures Hal Ashby’s masterful cult film in a scene set to Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy.” Involving the movie’s two other principal characters, the Mutant (Jason Bateman) and narrator Eric (Zach Mills), the unspoken exchange feels both manipulative and overly cute in its commentary on making friends and the tension between work and play. Most of the movie alternates between thunderously obvious pronouncements about believing in life and strained exhibitions of gleeful frolicking.
As Magorium, Hoffman looks like he is only there to cash a fat check. Decked out in colorful pinstripe ensembles and a mad scientist fright-wig with eyebrows to match, the veteran actor phones it in with a thoroughly galling lisp that makes his creaky gags sound even older than the age of his character. Portman fares little better, squirting crocodile tears whenever the script calls for them. Worse yet is Mills, cute enough to cause cavities; his unnecessary voiceover narration is one of the movie’s biggest liabilities. Only Jason Bateman, playing a variation on the straight man he honed to perfection on “Arrested Development,” provides a shred of common sense amidst the would-be madcap antics.
Helm, who previously penned the screenplay “Stranger Than Fiction,” appears to make a serious effort to avoid the gross-out humor that has become commonplace in kiddie fare. For that he should be commended. The problem is that he hasn’t replaced vulgarity with anything remotely engaging to the brain. “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” has plenty of eye candy for sale, but the lack of depth in its characterizations stops the movie in its tracks. While it earns points for earnestness and family friendliness, older viewers might be dreaming about the more satisfying wonderlands conjured in the tales of Pippi Longstocking or “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/3/07.