Tuesday 20 May 2008

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (2007)

Tuesday 20 May 2008
Writer & Director: Zach Helm

Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Mr. Magorium), Natalie Portman (Molly Mahoney), Jason Bateman (Henry "Mutant" Weston), Zach Mills (Eric) & Ted Ludzik (Bellini)

An eccentric toymaker bequeaths his magical toy shop to his assistant before he dies...

Writer Zach Helm's script for Stranger Than Fiction was a unique and involving piece of high-concept fantasy, so it's with great sadness to report that his first written script (which he also gets to direct, on the back of Fiction's success) is such a strenuous, lifeless waste of time. A toyshop variant of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, with none of Roald Dahl's subversive undertones or inventiveness -- it plays like a dull patchwork of the aforementioned Dahl masterpiece and Night At The Museum, with the magic door from Howl's Moving Castle, a bag borrowed from Mary Poppins, and a bizarre cameo from Kermit the Frog....

Dustin Hoffman plays the eponymous Mr. Magorium, a centuries-old toymaker who is supposedly magical -- but there's barely any evidence for that. He's a Willy Wonka-like man-child with a puff of grey hair, turtle pout, leathery skin, and a lisp that Mel Blanc would be proud of.

Hoffman has always wanted to play Mr. Wonka, so it's fortunate for everyone that Burton decided to cast Depp a few years back on the evidence of this. Mr. Magorium isn't an enchanting individual – he's like an irritating uncle and actually rather dull. There's one shot where his arm stretches across the room, and another where he can see someone he's talking to over a phone line, but those are the only times he exhibits magical qualities. Willy Wonka was only ever surrounded by magic, but never magical himself – so quite why Helm's script doesn't embrace the possibilities of having a wizard-like character is beyond me. It should have been an obvious trump card. And I never got the impression Mr. Magorium even likes kids.

But the toy shop is very definitely supernatural; in that the toys come to life, but none of the accompanying parents seem to notice, or actually buy anything. The manager of the store is one Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a frustrated pianist who's stuck in a rut and realizes she hasn't reached her true potential.

The central dilemma facing the Wonder Emporium is the imminent demise of Mr. Magorium, who's about to shuffle off this mortal coil and wants Mahoney to run the shop after he's gone. But before he dies, he wants to put his finances in order, so hires accountant Henry Weston (Jason Bateman) – a grumpy workaholic with a head for numbers and no time for play. Throw in shy kid Eric (Zach Mills), a hat fanatic who takes a shine to Henry (while also acting as the film's storybook narrator), and that completes the quartet of actors who should have passed on this project.

I have a soft spot for impossibly cute Natalie Portman, but not when she's indulging her slightly-androgynous, grinning, quirky side. With a boy's haircut and permanent smile, she's almost as grating as Hoffman, particularly when her idea of a life-affirming day out for Mr. Magorium is revealed to involve jumping on beds and (in one cringe-making scene) dancing on bubblewrap. In public.

The only actor who escapes with any dignity is Bateman, mainly because he's playing a cynical character whose dour reactions reflect audience apathy. I half-hoped his character would be involved in a twist, whereby he reveals to the taxman that Magorium and Mahoney are high on drugs, or mentally disturbed, and actually running a piss-poor Toys R' Us that's haemorrhaging profits. But it wasn't to be.

The really annoying thing about Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is that there are a few decent themes going on beneath all the tiring, vibrant, sickening claptrap. The main idea of a father-figure approaching his death is heady stuff for a kid's film, and there are a few scenes where it's handled quite beautifully.

Likewise, the arrested development of Mahoney (a talented musician who never pursued it beyond a hobby) is an interesting element to explore – but it doesn't bear much fruit. In fact, when Mahoney does leave the store -- ditching her jeans for a little black dress, slicking back her tomboy hair, and playing piano for shoppers in a mall – I actually viewed it as a step up for her. The last scene's attempt to make her musicality jive with resuscitating the lifeless emporium just left me cold – no matter how much technicolour the FX guys threw at us.

It's not particularly well directed, the production design doesn't eclipse your imagination when it comes to creating a magical toy shop, and the performances are weak or annoying. I don't actually blame the actors, who seem to be enjoying themselves, but Helm should have realized how wearisome Dustin Hoffman can be when he grins and drags out his kooky man routine – with comedy "lithp".

I dare say the under-8s will enjoy this, but it's painfully boring for demanding kids and especially adults. The film's just 94-minutes long, but it seems double that, and wastes a half-decent bunch of ideas bubbling under its surface breeziness. There's just nothing to get excited about, no characters to care about, and not enough technical wizardry to divert your attention from its many flaws.

20th Century Fox
94 minutes