With animation taking over kids’ movies, it’s refreshing when a live-action film comes along. “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” the newest of this genre, is a highly visual and engaging tale full of wonderment and one surprise after another. Because it has a sagging second half, adults without children will probably not want to check this one out. Kids, however, will love it, and their parents should find plenty to smile about - particularly Dustin Hoffman’s performance.
Sometimes a theme in a movie actually becomes a character, and that’s what makes “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” magical and fun. Writer and director Zach Helm (“Stranger Than Fiction”) pens a great first half of the film. Mr. Magorium’s toy store, the Wonder Emporium, is absolutely amazing. A mobile made of real fish; a dial that kids turn to find whatever room they want behind the secret door; a man in the basement who makes a book when kids order it; and “The Big Book” in which kids ask about a toy and once store manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) opens the letter the toy starts with, the toy pops out, are only a few examples of what goes on in this whimsical store.
The magical Wonder Emporium really outdoes itself when Edward Magorium (Hoffman) announces it’s time for him to leave the store. After all, he’s been handling the place for 243-years, and he’s tired. The store actually goes through a depression when hearing the news: the walls get lumps, the toys stop working and the store suddenly loses its color.
This upsets Mahoney, especially when she learns Mr. Magorium is leaving the store to her. More displeased is the store’s best customer and a real stand out in the film, 9-year-old boy Eric Applebaum, the Hat Collector (Zach Mills).
Eric, a lonely boy with no friends, has the insight of a 70-year old. When Henry Weston, (Jason Bateman) – the unemotional accountant Mr. Magorium calls the Mutant – is summoned to figure out the store’s worth, Eric takes Henry under his wing, teaching him about the store and how to find joy in imagination.Portman’s Molly is supposed to see what’s phenomenal about herself, but she never shows any growth or character change, which forms part of the problem in the second half of the film. Portman offers little more than wide-eyed expressions. One thing that bothered me about her role involves Molly being a former piano prodigy who’s struggled for years to finish a concert she’s writing. She shuffles her fingers on almost every surface she touches hoping to find her missing notes, but this scenario disappears in the second half of the movie with no resolution.
The joy of the movie comes from the store itself, as well as from Hoffman and Mills. The art and set departments of Fox Walden certainly get credit for the imaginative store and its toys. Hoffman is a hoot from beginning to end of his character’s journey. He looks goofy, talks silly and is as believable in this role as he was in “The Graduate.”
I can’t say enough about Mills’ performance. From the sad face when Henry tells him he doesn’t have time to play chess, to his stance on the counter instructing the kids to leave quickly when the store has a tantrum, the young actor seems amazingly immersed in every aspect of his character. Prepare to see him in many more movies.
While some critics – who lack the insight to think like an 8-year-old – say “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” is no “Willy Wonka,” it is just as fun and, believe it or not, never relies on bathroom jokes or putting others down. Indeed, much like a Dr. Seuss classic, pay attention and the story can open up an amazing new world – if only you believe!