Friday, November 16, 2007

"Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" -- * * *

At no point ever trying to appeal to adults in the audience, the G-rated "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is nonetheless perpetually charming and frequently adorable. The directorial debut of "Stranger than Fiction" screenwriter Zach Helm, "Magorium" is the type of thing you always hear described as appealing to "the child in all of us," and for once, the label fits. It would take a pretty sizable grouch to resist the sincere whimsy on display here, but even simply in the capacity as a parent, it's by far the best thing out right now to take your kids to (unless your kids are big fans of the Coen Brothers).

Intentionally evoking a fairy-tale feel, "Magorium" is broken into storybook-animated chapters and narrated by a young boy, our guide through the story, Eric (Zach Mills). Eric has no friends his own age, you see, and spends all his time at Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, a (literally) magical toy store with a life of its own, and with the store's owner, Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), and its manager, Mahoney (Natalie Portman). At the ripe old age of 243, Mr. Magorium (also known as "Not Steve"), has decided to retire, not just from his job, mind you, but from the planet.

Before he leaves our plane of existence, he insists on passing the torch to Mahoney, who claims she's not capable of handling the responsibility, in addition to aspiring to get back to her old hobby/profession as a concierto pianist. All the while, Henry (Jason Bateman), a humorless accountant assigned with assessing the true value of the store, passively observes and becomes unlikely friends with Eric. Henry manages to avoid noticing any sort of odd/magical goings-on in the emporium-- much like the mom in "E.T."-- and refreshingly, his only job is to evaluate the store's worth, and he never becomes a threat or villain.

As he proved with "Stranger," Helm is a tremendously clever writer, and maintains that quality even while writing for a much different genre/audience here. "Magorium" is wittier than the average kids film, but never goes for the easy joke (no bodily functions are present here). It takes a very gentle approach, with dozens of moments that provoke smiles or chuckles rather than belly laughs. My favorite bits were things Henry finds in Magorium's records, such as a loan from "The King of Planet Yah-way" and an IOU from Thomas Edison, reading "thanks for the idea."

But "Magorium" generates most of its goodwill from its, to put it crassly, "awww" moments of charm and adorability. A sequence depicting Zach and Henry's initial interaction via notepads is a little sappy, but it's also the moment the movie truly won me over. There's also a tremendously satisfying moment featuring stuffed animals (yes, I said it) that I challenge you to not smile at. The store at its most alive and thriving moments is immensely endearing, from its 'fresh fish' mobile to its constantly escaping bouncy balls, leading up to a climactic final scene that might send some kids into sensory overload. Helm makes the store as wondrous as its name would indicate, and makes us understand why Kermit the Frog (in a cameo) shops there.

The screenplay also gracefully deals with some issues that may not comfortably shoehorn into disposable kids fare, but amazingly work remarkably well here. Magorium's "decision" to leave this planet provokes surprisingly sensitive and effective exchanges about celebrating life and embracing death as just another natural part of it. The second movie this season to profoundly reference "King Lear" (the other being "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), "Magorium" gives Hoffman a great monologue about the merits and resonance of that play's closing line, "he died."

Portman does okay with carrying the film, but she underplays to the point of barely existing. She can be very good in the right part (e.g.: "V for Vendetta," "Beautiful Girls"), but it's clear a meaty role wasn't her reason for joining the cast of "Magorium." As the titular character, Hoffman is excessively delightful and more loveable than he's been in years. Equipped with an exaggerated lisp and sing-song manner of speaking, he constantly threatens to verge into irritating territory but never does. The actor has expressed in the past his desire to play Willy Wonka, and he's obviously relishing his chance to play the closest thing to the infamous candyman and getting to do such things as tap-dancing on bubble wrap.

Bateman gets an opportunity to play against his smarmy persona here and it's a pleasure to watch his character's transformation. Rather than a coldhearted businessman with a hidden soft side, Henry is a good guy from the outset, just a humorless one who learns to embrace his inner child. Between this, "The Kingdom" and "Juno," it appears "Arrested Development" may have served as a perfect re-launching pad for his film career.

Credited as "Supposedly a film by Zach Helm" and running a refreshing 88 minutes (27 minutes shorter than the abominable "Fred Claus"), "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is not a "family film;" it is most emphatically, and proudly, a kids movie. It has an abundance of wit and humor but makes no attempt to have "risque" content-- or uncomfortably wedge in a Vince Vaughn or Jerry Seinfeld-- to pander to a hip, adult crowd; it has a heart of gold and makes no bones about it.

The film takes place in a more innocent world, where grown men can say "I love you" to young boys and/or be caught playing in their room, without anyone suspecting anything fishy. It also, more than perhaps any other kids movie this year, appears to made with love and not simply churned out to turn a profit or sell product tie-ins (the only name brands I could spot were Slinky and K'nex). Those who found "Stranger than Fiction" too precious, or prefer their family fare punctuated with material destined to fly over little ones' heads, will probably find "Magorium" either irritating or underwhelming. However, those who get excited upon hearing the phrase "magical toy store" should jump on board.


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