Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman, Zach Mills
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
If you're even remotely like me, there are reviews that define a film critic.
There are times I will read a review and I will so deeply resonate with the critic's words, style and opinions that in that moment said critic instantly becomes one of my most relied upon film critics.
Likewise, however, there are those rare occasions when I will read a review that is so completely the opposite of my experience, so devoid of style and a balanced critical perspective that I pledge to myself I will never again read said film critic.
Welcome to my banished list, Owen Gleiberman.
Now then, I'll be the first to admit that on occasion a film just completely triggers that "I hate this movie" button that dwells inside each of us. The rest of the world may love the film, but there's just something about it that makes you cringe inside.
For me, "Titanic" is such a film. While the rest of the world was enthralled by the film, including most movie critics, I found myself bored, unimpressed and, at times, downright appalled.
So, I understand and accept Gleiberman's strong, negative reaction to "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," the first feature film from writer/director Zach Helm (who wrote the screenplay for "Stranger than Fiction") starring Dustin Hoffman as a 243-year-old toy store owner and shoe-wearer who's preparing to die and hand off his store to heir apparent Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), his 23-year-old underachieving store manager.
While I enjoyed the film immensely, I can understand Gleiberman's disappointment and I can even admit that Zach Helms is a much better writer than a director. The result is a film that, undoubtedly, looked far more enchanting on paper than its final result.
But, an "F"? The lowest possible grade for "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium?"
See, the funny thing is that despite my rather serious dislike for "Titanic" (Okay. Okay. I hated it), it was my job as a film critic to set aside my own personal issues and agendas and evaluate the film from both personal and critical perspectives. My experience was dreadful, but did that make "Titanic" a truly dreadful film?
Not hardly. My middle-of-the-road grade for the film was my way of saying "Hey folks, I hated it. But, it's got some great stuff going for it."
At its worst, "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" has lots of stuff going for it and, even if it doesn't work for you, has enough going for it that to rate the film an "F" is more revealing of the critic than it is the film.
In other words, I'm not reading Owen Gleiberman anymore.
While "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is an original screenplay, it FEELS like it is adapted from a children's story. More precisely, the film is a kinder, gentler "Willy Wonka" that feels much like a re-interpretation of the Roald Dahl book upon which it is based.
Rest assured, however, that "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is an original film, obviously by a writer who has openly acknowledged being influenced by the more gentle, whimsical and imaginative authors of children's literature. While it is inevitable that one will reflect upon films ranging from "Willy Wonka" to "The Wizard of Oz" to Barry Levinson's "Toys," Helm's film never feels so much like a rip-off as it does a faithful, if every rather light, homage to its predecessors.
Hoffman, whose acting career is practically a parade of uniquely envisioned characterizations, courageously dives into the role of Mr. Magorium, a delightfully eccentric man who entirely believes he is 243-years-old (because he is!) and who lives his days inside his toy store in a constant state of wonder and merriment. Hoffman's characterization, on a certain level, brings to mind his wonderful turn in "Rain Man," but in this film Hoffman is allowed to play, come to life, emote and celebrate the wonders he is experiencing all around him.
This is not to say that each of these scenes successfully manifests the desired level of wonder and magic. Sadly, they don't. Scenes, for example, in which Molly escorts Mr. Magorium around town to experience a variety of simple wonders often feels forced and slightly flat. As Mr. Magorium was celebrating the wonders of bubble-pak, one couldn't help but reflect upon Tom Hanks' wonderful piano dancing in the more innocent and celebratory "Big," a film that more successfully evoked the innocence for which "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" seems to be aiming.
Yet, despite Helm's inability to make "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" quite as magical as it ought to be, the film still celebrates childhood more faithfully than the vast majority of children's films in recent history.
Even when the scene occasionally betrays him, Hoffman is wonderfully endearing as Mr. Magorium. Hoffman's Magorium is an innocent, childlike, faithful and loving man without a hint of impropriety or hidden agenda.
Indeed, what may challenge the box-office potential of "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" more than anything is that it is completely devoid of anything resembling interpersonal conflict or evil. Instead, the film is filled to the brim with love for its characters, respect for children and appreciation for those who are different.
It's no secret that respect and dignity don't typically add up to big box-office numbers!
As Molly, Natalie Portman offers a sweet and intelligent performance of the young lady who was once a child piano prodigy but whose stage fright got the best of her. Molly is terrified of never adding up to being more than a store manager, but she's equally as terrified of adding up to more! Portman's Molly is the kind of girl Stuart Smalley would take in front of the mirror and make say "You're good enough. You're Smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."
The only note that rings false in Portman's performance is, sadly, the film's final scene in which Molly discovers she does, indeed, possess the magic to run the Emporium and, simultaneously, her long incomplete concerto comes vividly to life before her very eyes. This scenes plays a tad too seriously and lacks the sense of innocence and wonder that would be more convincing that the young woman, indeed, was ready to fill the shoes of Mr. Magorium. It's difficult to say whether this lacking is on the part of Portman or through Helm's direction, but even the scene's choreography lacks the celebratory tone befitting the moment and, more importantly, the film's final scene.
The cast is rounded out by a spot-on perfect Jason Bateman, as an accountant (or "Mutant," as everyone calls him) called in by Magorium to sort out the books before he hands off the store, and the young Zach Mills ("Hollywoodland"), as a young boy who seemingly skips school to "work" in the Emporium amongst the toys that are his only friends.
Bateman perfectly capitalizes on his "Arrested Development" persona in creating a character that is, in some ways, the only sane one. Yet, as we learned in "Arrested Development," even the most sane among us has touches of insanity.
Mills, as well, offers a strong, sympathetic performance as the young boy who really only needs a friend. His scenes with "Mutant," which could have been so easily skewed towards the uncomfortable, instead were simply sweet.
The production design team of Therese DePrez (production designer), Clive Thomasson (Set Design) and Brandt Gordon(art design) have combined to create a sort of throwback toy store that blends beautifully the fact that Magorium has been doing this, after all, since the 1700's with Magorium's obvious love of toys that challenge, inspire and educate children rather than distract them.
While "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" isn't quite the celebration of wonder that it is trying to be, neither is it the travesty that Owen Gleiberman proclaims it to be. Rather, "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is a celebration of childhood, wonder, innocence, friendship, love and community.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic