There’s nothing harder to get right in a movie than whimsy. And there are few clumsier crashes when it goes wrong. What could have been a charmingly whimsical children’s book becomes an arch and sugary movie, its failures of tone and timing hitting its lightweight storyline like a blast of cold air on a fragile souffle. This is one flat souffle.
Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is a merry old soul who lives with a zebra and a very large collection of tsotchkes over his magical toy store. Magorium’s only employee is Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), once a promising pianist and composer. She can not finish her concerto. And while she loves the toy store, she feels that she has to move on to find her “sparkle.” Eric (Zach Mills) is a boy with a hat collection who helps at the store but does not have any friends other than Mahoney and Mr. Magorium. And Henry (Jason Bateman) is an accountant who discovers that the store does not seem to have any of the appropriate paperwork. He is what Mahoney calls a “just” guy because he thinks the Emporium is “just” a store.
Mr. Magorium announces that he is going to leave and it becomes clear that he means he is going to die. Mahoney, Eric, and Zach must all learn something about endings and beginnings and taking chances and about themselves to keep the store from sulking and fuming and bring back the magic.
Everyone tries very hard, which is part of the problem. The story calls for a light touch, but everything is heavy and underscored. Hoffman seems very excited by his false teeth, speech impediment, and determindly goofy persona, but instead of coming across like an agreeably dotty soul with more important things to think about than reality and all those other grown-up things, he bangs every line like he is hitting it with a hammer. Only Bateman shows some sense of the right understated tone, though perhaps that is because he is playing a repressed character who carries a briefcase.
The sets are overstuffed instead of imaginative. The special effects are not very…special. The technology is fine, but the ideas behind it are not especially inventive. In real life a ball bounces. In this story, the balls are very big and bouncy. Not too exciting. Most of the toys on the shelves will be familiar to anyone who has ever been in a museum store. And most of the story focuses on Magorium’s farewell, including a completely unnecessary diversion to a hospital and this exchange of dialogue: “I’m wearing pants!” “So am I!” It struggles to find charm in a boy’s hat collection and struggles even more to find humor in dubbing Henry “Mutant” on the theory that accountant means someone who can count and is a mutuant. The movie’s attempts at humor are so forced and gooey that I did not so much exit the movie as scrape it off my shoe.
Small children may enjoy the visuals, but they may be disturbed by the sad loss at the heart of the story. Older children are more likely to find it dull. The only wonder to be found will be speculation on how much more movie before everyone can go home.
Parents should know that the movie has brief schoolyard language and a sad (offscreen) death, with scenes at a funeral.
Family discussion: If you went to Mr. Magorium’s store, what would you pick to play with? Why was it hard for Eric to make friends? Which of his hats did you like the best? Why does Mahoney call Mr. Magorium “sir?” What does Henry mean about people having different ways to show they care?
If you like this, try: the book or movie versions of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and The Westing Game or Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and its sequels.