Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium
The store is the star in this candy-coloured kids' extravaganza, a whimsical fantasy about a magic toy shop.
Natalie Portman does her darndest Audrey Hepburn impression as Molly Mahoney, the manager of said establishment. She seems happy and fulfilled in her work - and who wouldn't be, when all she has to do is open the stock book to conjure up the apple of anybody's eye - but less so at home, where she's blocked on that piano concerto she's been trying to finish for as long as she can remember.
Mr Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is a quirky eccentric, an "avid shoe-wearer" with a hair-raising look, who lives with a pet zebra and who delights in silly word play, dumb jokes, and harmless fun. His joie de vivre seems to work, as he claims to be 243 years young.
Still, he's concerned that Mahoney is stuck, so he announces he'll be throwing off this mortal coil. His time has come, he says. He will leave Mahoney the store and a wooden cube, and the accounts in good order - to which he end he hires "the mutant" (Jason Bateman), a number cruncher who practically snuffs the life out of the Emporium with his stiff-necked respect for the bottom line. With Magorium moving on, the entire inventory goes into mourning, and Mahoney is plunged further into self-doubt.
Writer-director Zach Helm had a hit of sorts with last year's Stranger Than Fiction (which he wrote). The recipe is similar here, albeit with a more childish bent: post-modern self-reflexivity at the service of sentimental life lessons, and mostly at the expense of accountants (the mutant's relationship with Mahoney is a sketchier replay of Will Ferrell's relationship with Maggie Gyllenhaal in the other film). Helm's brand of cute isn't to my taste, and the movie could have used a stronger director to cut through the worst of indulgences. Mr Magorium has a long parting speech citing Shakespeare's stage description in "King Lear": "He dies". "That's all it says at the end of the world's greatest work of dramatic literature," he marvels. "He dies."
Leaving aside this dubious piece of dramatic criticism, it's worth pointing out the irony here: Helm may admire Shakespeare's simplicity, but even as he draws attention to it he makes a ripe old meal out of Magorium's demise.
The authorial voice is much too pleased with itself, and especially in the winsome voice over and cloying chapter headings.
It's not all bad though. Helm throws out ideas like confetti, and some of them are charming. I loved the nervous Slinky, for example, backing off from the edge of the step. The biggest bouncy ball in the world is an idea worthy of Roald Dahl. If there's more than a touch of Willy Wonka about Mr M, Helm has none of Dahl's mischief or malice. He even manages to do without a villain, unless you count rationalism, which is pretty abstract for a children's film.
Considering the setting, the restraint in the product placement department is also impressive. You will recognise some familiar brands but they're not thrust down our throats. And the animated opening title sequence hits just the right note of elegant old school invention.
I also liked the character of Eric (Zach Mills), a lonely nine-year-old who spends his summer at the shop modeling his impressive hat collection. If Helm had developed the script around Eric and Magorium, cutting back Mahoney and dispensing with the Mutant altogether, then he might have made something really special.
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