MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM (Zach Helm, 2007)
243-year-old toy store owner Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) announces that the time has come for him to leave this earthly existence and turn over the business to his protégé Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). Naturally, the news of his departure is met with less enthusiasm than the eccentric proprietor anticipated.
Molly has been happy to manage the store as a diversion from struggling to find herself as a composer, but she doesn't feel ready to assume control of the shop. Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), a friendless boy who spends his free time at the emporium, can't imagine the place without him. Even the building and toys go into a funk over the thought of Mr. Magorium leaving. The only one untroubled by the development is Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), a decidely unplayful accountant summoned to determine the worth of the soon-to-be bequeathed business.
MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM jumps headfirst into the tale with the full-blown whimsy its title suggests. Unfortunately writer-director Zach Helm mistakes busyness and unfettered zaniness for the breezy and magical tone he wants to establish, obliterating it from the screen in the process. The aggressive pitching of unbridled joy seems forced, as if everyone is trying too hard.
Broken into storybook-like chapters and narrated by Eric, the film implies that it possesses literary roots; however, MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM comes across as a quickie knockoff attempting to capitalize on a more popular title's success. Roald Dahl's influence is undeniable, especially in the Wonka-esque title character. Helm hasn't stolen ideas but mimicked them, and not in a terribly convincing voice. He's borrowed materials from classic kid lit--no harm in that--but not the spark that brings them to life.
The film even begins as though there are a few books (or cinematic prequels) that precede this particular story. This narrative technique makes for a jagged start and, more critically, undermines the importance of Mr. Magorium's going. Without sufficient time to cotton to the character, his planned exit fails to affect the audience just introduced to him.
For all of its shortcomings--and there are many--it's nice to see a G-rated movie determined to approach young viewers with respect and aspire to cover deep subjects while entertaining. (MR. MAGORIUM'S message is about fulfilling one's purpose in life and how in doing so death is not sorrowful. Heavy stuff, to be sure.) Hopefully next time Helm will make a film more worthy of his ambitions.