Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

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Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
Review (6.5/10)
(By Erin Cullin)

As the parent of a two-year-old, I have become acutely aware of the inescapable marketing machine designed to ensnare young children and their parents' wallets. My house, for instance, has recently become something of a shrine to Thomas the Tank Engine. I cannot come within fifty feet of a book store or a toy store with my son without hearing loud shrieks begging me to stop so that he can explore the premises for the latest addition to his Thomas collection.

Once upon a time, of course, those were my shrieks. The object of my obsession was not Thomas, but rather was Barbie and her friends. Let me just say this - karma really stings when it finally comes back to bite you in the behind.

As someone who loves films, I look forward to the day that I can introduce my son to the magical world of cinema, even though the mass marketing machine accompanies those big screen releases. We are not quite there yet - I will not take Jack to a feature film until I can get him to sit through an entire screening of Finding Nemo at home - but the day is approaching soon enough. I just hope that first big screen feature is not a film about Thomas, or I may never get him to leave the theatre.

The latest addition to the selection of children's films being released just in time for Christmas is Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Written and directed by Zach Helm ("Stranger Than Fiction") and starring Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman, the film tells the story of the most wonderful toy store in the world. The store's owner, Mr. Magorium (Hoffman), realizing that his days are numbered (he has been alive for 243 years, so he has had a pretty good run) decides to transfer the store to Molly Mahoney (Portman), his shy, insecure manager. The store, less than pleased about the change in ownership, responds by slowly losing its own signs of life. Molly finds herself tasked with recapturing the Emporium's magic, or the world will lose the store forever.

As someone who will be watching more than my fair share of children's films in the not-too-distant future, I gauge the success of children's films as much by their appeal to adults as by their appeal to children. Parents are participants in their children's viewing experience, after all, and it is difficult for children to truly enjoy their viewing experience if they are sitting next to someone who cannot wait to escape from the theatre.

Using this assessment scale, I would have to say that Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a film that half-succeeds in its objectives. It will be mesmerizing to anyone under the age of ten. Unfortunately, anyone over the age of ten may find themselves leaving the theatre feeling that the only magic that they have witnessed is the disappearance of ten dollars from their wallets.

Where this film succeeds is in its set design. Mr. Magorium's Emporium is, indeed, a wonderous place, far more enthralling than even the fabled FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue in New York. It is a real toy store with real toys - not an extension of the electronics section of your local department store. Children will be dazzled by the colorful displays and amazing gadgets, while their adult companions will be transported to the innocence of their own childhood.

When the audience steps out of the store, however, they realize that the magic is in fact an illusion. As the visual beauty of the film begins to wane, one realizes that the film is lacking in plot and character development. The screenplay is linear and predictable to the point of being transparent. The audience does not have a sense of urgency about the store's demise, nor do we ever truly feel empathy for the film's characters.

For me, this film's screenplay was extremely disappointing. I had expected more from a film written by Zach Helm, who also brought us the very witty and original "Stranger Than Fiction", one of the few films to actually stretch Will Ferrell's acting muscles. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium was one of the most talked-about films at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival for that very reason. Perhaps I expected too much, but I was anticipating a film with both substance and style. It is not an impossible task - in 1988, "Big" garnered an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, as well as a best actor nod for Tom Hanks.

This film could also have benefitted from a few adjustments in its casting. While Dustin Hoffman was a solid choice (and reminded me a bit of Rod Stewart without the benefit of hair coloring), this film would have been a perfect vehicle for Robin Williams to bring his acting career back onto the rails. Natalie Portman was poorly cast as Molly Mahoney. While she had no difficulty playing the part of the lifeless, vacant store manager, she never quite rose to the occasion when called upon to give the film its magic. I suspect that Brittany Murphy would have been a better choice to fill her role. On the plus side, Jason Bateman delivers yet another solid acting performance.

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is not the worst film that I have ever seen, and is not a bad choice for parents of small children, provided that they do not go into the theatre with any expectations of their own. It is a bit of a disappointment once you look past the flash and sparkle. But, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon with your children and, with Christmas approaching, I suppose we could all stand to consume a few empty calories.

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