MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM

Zach Helm’s whimsical, magical, thoughtful and sometimes pretty funny family film surprised me with its charm and relative insight; I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I ever could’ve expected. Dustin Hoffman is Mr. Magorium, the “eccentric” old man (indeed, some reports suggest he’s 243 years old!) who runs his magical toy store in a tiny corner of New York City. Helping him is piano prodigy turned store manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), who has forsaken her burgeoning career as a composer and pianist for long hours tending to Mr. Magorium’s quirks, his wild imagination, and the store which has eminated from such things. Helping both of them is young Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), a smart, quirky 9-year-old devoid of friends (outside of the store) who even puts off his fellow children when he plays around them inside the store. Mr. Magorium is “departing” and needs to assess the value of his life’s work, so he hires “the mutant” Henry Weston (Jason Bateman, in the same season as “Juno”), an accountant who works all day and has no fun. Gradually, little by little, he becomes first Eric’s friend, then Molly’s, and begins to possibly see a twinkle of the wonderment the store has to offer. How immersed in the adult world of work and paper would you have to be to miss a door with a handle which seems to shift the rooms behind it, a gigantic ball, a live pet zebra, books which seemingly give you whatever you’re searching for (actually make things materialize from the page) and fish mobiles with live, fresh fish? Such is Henry’s lot in life until he walks into Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. The plot concerns Henry’s change from uptight adult to chidlike waif, and Molly’s shift from childlike waif and follower of Mr. Magorium’s whims to full-fledged adult with belief in herself, and young Eric’s shift from odd loner to…odd loner with friends? The film is the directorial debut of screenwriter Zach Helm, who previously wrote Marc Forster’s “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006). That also involved occult-power-imbued objects and uptight accountants getting loose and finding their inner sparks and Dustin Hoffman as a quirky old eccentric. What Helm lacks in craft, he more than makes up for in spirit, imagination and whimsy. This film, then, is a remarkable construction. From the set design, to the cinematography to just the general energy level of the story, this is the kind of movie where hyperkinetic doesn’t really begin to cover it; it practically oozes sugar and light. That being said, it is fun and sweet and thoughtful and surprisingly grown up for a G-rated family film. But it is a family film, and one adults might possibly enjoy just as much as their offspring.

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