A film review by Craig J. Koban

MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM jjj

2007, G, 93 mins.

Mr. Magorium: Dustin Hoffman / Molly: Natalie Portman / Henry: Jason Bateman / Eric: Zach Mills

Written and directed by Zach Helm.

At one point in the wonderfully titled new family film, MR. MAGORIUMíS WONDER EMPORIUM, one of the characters asks, "How can a store throw a temper tantrum?"

Indeed, thatís a very good question, but the simple answer is...because itís magic, silly.

MR. MAGORIUM is like a slap in the face to all of the cynicism and nihilism that often sweeps through the cinemas these days.  Sometimes, there is nothing more refreshing than a charming and decent minded family entertainment whose most endearing characteristic is that it simply made me smile while watching it.

This is a goofy, irreverent, odd, and whimsical fantasy - very much akin to CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY - but MR. MAGORIUM balances its sweetness  with its bizarre underpinnings.  Whatís even more surprising is that itís not just one of those dumbed down, easily disposable and forgettable kiddie flicks with bright and boisterous visuals and a story on autopilot.  It manages to deal with - albeit subtly - issues of family, friendship, and the painful finality of death.  The film has a sense of wonder as well.

Perhaps the most wondrous aspect of the film is the limitless adorability and luminous presence of the lovely Natalie Portman, who is able to embody so much joy and youthful spunk and enthusiasm in her performance.  This is not a strong bit of dramatic acting, per se, but she has the tricky task on playing things fairly straight to the utterly wacky and over-the-top personality that is Mr. Magorium, played in a colorful and appropriately cartoonish performance by Dustin Hoffman.  When you have to play in scenes with a toy maker that is actually over two hundred years old and has a toy store that actually has mood swings, a grounded reality is something difficult to achieve.  To say that Portman is able to ground the film and still manage to reflect its childlike energy and vitality is not as easy as it seems.

Make no mistake about it, as much as I cherished Portmanís appealing presence in the film, Mr. Magorium himself is a humorous and engaging creation.  He is the pure, unrefined embodiment of joy and happiness and the kind of eccentric and monumentally enthusiastic old coot that is able to forever walk the earth in a perpetual state of optimism and fulfillment.  As a matter of fact, the man is so optimistic that when it is revealed that he is going to die, it's not because of some sort of disease or sickness, itís simply going to happen because he wants and chooses it to happen.  When someone asks him if heís dying, he cheerfully responds, "Light bulbs die.  I am departing."

To say that he has led a fulfilling life is an understatement.  It is hinted that he gave Thomas Edison the key to the invention of the light bulb (remember, he is 243-years-old, but does not look a day over 60) and also managed to create one of the greatest toy stores in existence.  This is not one of those Wall-Mart sized monster stores, but a rather quaint and small emporium in New York.  It has toys (boy...does it ever!), but the key here is that this is a living and breathing toy store where absolutely anything is possible.  Toys have minds of their own, can be created out of thin air, and pile up to the rafters, often obscuring the walls and ceilings.  Anything that you want can be instantly made; the only limit is your imagination.  The children who populate the store on a daily basis canít get enough.  Itís simply a pleasure palace for tykes...and for those scant few adults who share a childís unique perspective on things.

One of those adults in question is the 23-year-old Molly (Portman) who manages the store for Mr. Magorium, who acts essentially as a store host and facilitator.  He has owned it for well over a century, but Molly oversees the daily events.  She certainly loves the crazy and adorable old man, but she has a secret passion.  She was once a young piano prodigy, but eventually lacked the will and passion to carry it forward to successful fruition.  In a way, she has a very early mid-life crisis: She takes her job at the emporium very seriously and enjoys her time there, but she wants more out of her life that being a toy store manager.

Things get dicey when Magorium reveals to Molly that - surprise - he is dying and that she will be soul owner of his Emporium (humorously, she responds that the Emporium will cease to be the same without Magorium in the name, plus...she is not capable of the miraculous magical feats that he is).  Of course, Molly instantly turns down her boss' lucrative offer, seeing as she wants to peruse other avenues, but Magorium wants his store and legacy preserved for future generations.  So does one of the storeís regulars, Eric (played in a decent performance by Zach Mills) who also does not want to see the mysticism of Magoriumís store die.  Looming even darker on the horizon is the sudden appearance of an accountant named Henry Weston (played in a droll performance by the dependably funny Jason Bateman), who is all mannered business and no fun.  He is hired to look into the books of the emporium, which have not been done...at all...for two hundred years.

Alas, Henry is a bit of a scrooge.  He fails to comprehend the appeal of the store, not to mention that he quite rightfully, at first, fails to believe in Magoriumís claims to being centuries old and having a store that is alive (when Molly tells him that the store is "magic," he hilariously deadpans back, "By that do you mean...special?").  Nevertheless, the store appears to be on the brink of financial devastation, which seems ludicrous seeing as it appears to make money and has heavy traffic daily.  The store, aside from its monetary woes, is getting sicker and moodier by the days, especially after the announcement of Magorium's impending death...or...excuse me...departure.  At one point, the bright red walls start turning black...literally before our eyes.

Hmmmm...will Magorium be able to convince Molly to re-discover the confidence she has inside before he dies?  Will Molly, as a result, see that she possesses the magic needed to run the store after his death?  Will the accountant with a heart of stone find the hidden inner child in himself and befriend the friendless Eric?  Will the accountant also come to grips with the fact that the store is, indeed, magic and help Molly to take over the store for future generations to enjoy?

MR. MAGORIUM marks the directorial debut of the 32-year-old Zach Helm, whose previous credits include a very auspicious screenplay debut in last yearís delightful and sublime STRANGER THAN FICTION.  Certainly, MAGORIUM does not have that filmís sly and subversive edge, but it never claims that it wants to attain that.  The film exists ostensibly to admire its sense of frolicking whimsy and imagination.  It succeeds by being engaging, funny, warm-hearted, and light, and Hoffman has a real glimmer of lively capriciousness playing the magic man that seems silly and wonky, but has real insights into things that matter.  He has a way of simply putting the largest of questions to rest with minimal words.  When trying to council Molly, he quietly tells her that, "Life is an occasion...rise to it."

Most importantly, MR. MAGORIUMíS WONDER EMPORIUM made me feel happy.  Itís difficult not to be charmed by Hoffmanís absurdly endearing title character, and Portman, as stated, also creates such a monumentally cute and amiable character with great ease.  Jason Bateman is a nice counter balance to the peculiar world of Magorium, playing the accountant that is a staunch pragmatist.  And then there is the store, which becomes the filmís real major character.  As far as family films go, this is one that has modest ambitions and goals and, for the most part, is a delight.  Sure, itís story is fairly routine, but MR. MAGORIUM is a good example of how a filmís glamour and appealing nature can trump an obvious and predictable plot.

And did I tell you that this film made me smile a lot?

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