Last year’s Stranger
Than Fiction, in which the world of Will Ferrell’s unimaginative,
fuddy-duddy accountant got turned upside down when he discovered he was the
serial fictional character of an English novelist set on finally killing him
off, drew mostly positive notices for screenwriter Zach Helm, in his feature
film debut. In Helm’s first foray behind the camera, it’s the world of Jason
Bateman’s unimaginative, fuddy-duddy accountant that gets turned upside down
when he’s drafted to bring into line the financial affairs of the 243-year-old
owner of a magical toy shop.
Mr. Magorium’s Wonder
Emporium simply plays like some meandering, bastard love child of Toys, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland.
Its twee, self-satisfied colorfulness outstripped only by its sloppy form and
thin characterizations, the film does the unthinkable — it delivers a boring
trip to the toy store, making one yearn for the rigid strictures of adulthood
over the unbridled imagination of adolescence.
Dustin Hoffman stars as Edward Magorium, a bushy-browed
oddball who lives with a zebra and is the proprietor of an extraordinary shop
which houses all manner of fantastical playthings. Children love it, obviously, especially the personable,
pint-sized Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), an avid collector of hats who has no
friends, and hangs around like he’s Norm from Cheers. A couple centuries old, and for no other reason than he’s on
his last pair of shoes, Magorium decides it’s finally time to hand off the
reins to the store to his manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a
23-year-old piano aficionado who feels adrift and listless. To that end,
Magorium begins planning for his chosen date of terminal exit by bringing in
Henry Weston (Bateman), a straight-laced accountant with a creativity deficit.
The store itself, meanwhile, doesn’t spark to Magorium’s departure, and starts
exhibiting signs of petulance and noncompliance, namely through a slow drain of
color and decreased whimsicality.
The film’s list of confounding elements is a long one. First
off, we don’t learn enough about Mr. Magorium to really identify with Molly’s
distress about his planned departure. Similarly, Molly’s own “crossroads moment” is puzzling (does
she really want to be a concert pianist, or are her musical noodlings merely a
generic creative placeholder for early-twentysomething ennui?) and young Eric
is an outcast only because the script dictates it. None of these characters are
particularly deeply sketched, and consequently we don’t feel any fire in their
decisions and dilemmas, or attachment to their plights.
Most damningly, though, apart from some of the production
design and sets, neither is Mr.
Magorium’s Wonder Emporium infused with enough of a sense of
wide-eyed wonderment to make one forget about all these pesky, nagging
questions of back story and such. It sounds downright silly to say about a film
like this that nothing makes sense, but the logic on display here is of
come-what-may lackadaisicalness. Even if Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — another movie about an arrested-development eccentric
seeking out an informal inheritor — felt a bit emotionally isolated, it at
least had an undeniable authorial authenticity. Helm’s leaden directorial touch
is so passive and yawningly uninvolved — it’s pure by-the-numbers cute and faux-magical — that you’d be hard-pressed to believe Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
was written and directed by the same person. That said, its problems extend
from screen to page, and back again. (Walden Media/20th Century Fox, G, 96 minutes)
For the slightly longer full review, from Reelz, click here.