Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is a rare thing in this day and age. It’s a G-rated family film which doesn’t pander to its market. It’s the kind of film Disney should be making. As conceived by writer/director Zach Helm, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is a modern take on how to keep alive the wonder and magic available to each and every one of us. And while it may not be original, it is fun.
In this version of the classic fairy-tale where adults lose faith in their belief of the impossible (see Hook for an example of it being done wrong), Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) is the manager of the titular store, owned by Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman). From the beginning, we understand the store is something special. There is a single door which can lead to a number of different places depending on where the handle is set, the stuffed animals are alive and the laws of gravity don’t really apply. Mahoney, a child-prodigy concert pianist, comes in to work, meeting young Eric (Zach Mills) along the way. Eric, a friendless, eccentric fourteen year-old, seems to be the shop’s only other de facto employee. As that first morning develops, we learn that in addition to the shop being more than we thought, Magorium himself is also a little bit extra – he’s been running the Wonder Emporium for well over two hundred years and in all that time, he’s never kept any type of records. So today, for some inexplicable reason, he’s decided to hire an accountant. Inexplicable that is to anyone who’s never seen a film like this before. It isn’t hard to figure out that Magorium is planning to leave the store to Mahoney, who needs to re-find her own personal magic.
Of course, another trope Helm trots out is the cynic who will be converted by the story’s end. In this case, that is the accountant Henry (Jason Bateman) who is nicknamed Mutant. He is the only one who fails to see the magic in the store, in fact, he fails to see the magic in life. Things only go from bad to worse when Magorium publicly announces his intentions to leave the store to Mahoney, who can’t see how anyone but Magorium can run it. The store itself doesn’t see it either, and it rebels, literally going black (the equivalent of holding its breath until it gets what it wants). That it is going to get what it wants is never in question. These are not the days of disappointing endings, especially not in G rated family films, but the little revelations about how to discover what’s really important in life make it worth the trip.
Highlights of the trip, certainly, are Bateman, Mills and Portman. This triumvirate keeps up the energy and imbues their characters with complete lives. Mills, especially, is able to hold his own with his award-winning co-stars, often over-shadowing them with his open smile and expressive eyes. Hoffman, while serviceable, feels like he’s rehashing parts of his Rainman character mixed in with a glimpse as to how he’d play Willy Wonka given half a chance.
If there’s anything to complain about, though, it’s Helm. As a first time director and sophomore screenwriter it feels like he’s trying a little too hard. There are places where he needs to trust his audience more, to let them discover the wonder for themselves rather than focusing on it so intently he ends up sapping the magic from it. In the end though, he’s been given a fine cast and a top notch effects team and he puts both through their paces. So if you take the kids, you won’t be disappointed yourself.
Oh, by the way, stay through the end. Not only are the credits amusing, but you don’t want to miss the little tag when they’re over.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)