Unfortunately, “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” fails to match, much less outdo, the Wonka story in its breadth of imagination and originality, compensating for its shortcomings with special effects and the celebrity of its two leads.
Mr. Magorium’s empire centers around a strange and fantastical toy store, where children run riot without fear of breaking things or having to actually purchase anything at the end of the day. Mr. Magorium, played endearingly and with a random lisp by Dustin Hoffman, fits snugly into the role of the eccentric and magical entrepreneur seeking a rightful heir to his empire.
And that’s where things get complicated. For a G-rated film, “Mr. Magorium” tackles several profound issues: the heir turns out to be store manager Molly Mahoney, played by Natalie Portman, but taking charge doesn’t come easily to her. When Mahoney learns that Mr. Magorium is planning to leave the store, she must overcome her lack of confidence and faith and deal with the loss.
Together with an accountant named Henry (Jason Bateman) and Eric (Zach Mills), a talented but lonely boy, Mahoney learns to believe in herself and the inner “sparkle” which helps her step up to her new role.
If the plot sounds cliché, it is: The most refreshing part of the film is the subtle use of special effects to bring the toys in the store to life. And while the toys themselves aren’t outrageously original or imaginative (in fact, the film features several commercial toys that already exist) they add a quiet charm to the film’s colorful construction. A guest appearance by Kermit the Frog, who visits the store for some shopping, also serves as one of the more exciting scenes—a bittersweet triumph that speaks to the film’s overall lack of creativity.
In addition to its triteness, “Mr. Magorium” sometimes overestimates the maturity level of its audience. Towards the end of the film, Hoffman gently explains the concept of death to Portman by discussing the stage directions at the close of “King Lear”: “There’s no fanfare, no metaphor...just ‘he dies’...And we are sad not because of those words, but because of the story that comes before those words. But then we must let the next story begin.” Though poignant, the reference is unnecessarily complex by G-rating standards.
In that sense, the film tries too hard to be all-encompassing. While most of the subject matter, and even the jokes at some points, may go over the heads of younger members in audience, it’s not sufficiently witty enough to be consistently enjoyable for older viewers. This tension carries over to Portman’s performance—having played serious roles for the majority of her career, her puns and exaggerated expressions are forced or saccharine sweet. She is definitely more comfortable dramatically choking back tears as Mr. Magorium prepares to leave.
On the other hand, Zach Mills (“The Santa Clause 3”), who plays Eric, brilliantly portrays a young, inquisitive but lonely boy. Eric is a dynamic and imaginative character who wears a different hat each day; he is instantly likable, both as the narrator and as the voice of reason in the film. Jason Bateman (“The Break Up”), who plays Henry the accountant, tries hard to be mundane and formal, but only succeeds in coming off as slightly socially awkward.
There is perhaps one element of the film that might have appealed to young and old alike: the development of Portman and Bateman’s flirty tension into something more. Kids love cute couples, and adults would enjoy observing the chemistry between the “Star Wars” queen and the “Arrested Development” golden boy. As it is, the romantic overtones don’t amount to much; besides cliché, the movie doesn’t either.