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Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 May 2008
ImageSupposedly Dustin Hoffman wanted to play Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory;” when he wasn’t able to, he signed on for this.  In the future, I hope Mr. Hoffman gets to play the roles he wants to; what he does instead can have unpleasant consequences, like this movie. 

Few qualities are more annoying than failed whimsy, which describes “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” perfectly.  Zach Helm wrote the film and makes his directorial debut, but his direction is more successful (or less unsuccessful) than his writing.  Everything is labored; all the people are adorable; all the children are cute.  Furthermore, Hoffman, as Mr. Magorium, is given a “funny” haircut and talks in a “funny” manner.  He pulls in his lower lips, squints a little (I suspect he thinks that makes his eyes twinkle), and talks like Ed Wynn without the giggles.  But with the lisp.  Ouch. 

Hoffman can be a great actor, but he can also fail in a monumental way when he clearly is thinking his way through a performance rather than inhabiting the character.  Few actors could have done Ratso Rizzo (in “Midnight Cowboy”) as well as Hoffman did, but almost anyone could have played Hoffman’s role in “Papillon” better than he did.  As Pauline Kael said, you can see the wheels go around; you can see Hoffman choosing everything he does, including the way he speaks.  Few would say that Steve McQueen was generally a better actor than Hoffman, but in “Papillon,” Hoffman blows him off the screen.

But to give Hoffman his due, such as it is, Mr. Magorium is probably an unplayable role.  He’s an angelically sweet toymaker and owner of the title toy store in Manhattan.  And he’s practically immortal.  It’s said at one point that he’s been making toys since the 1770s, and made them for Napoleon, but his birth date is given on screen as 1780.  He’s owned this store for 113 years.  In any event, he’s an old coot who lives upstairs over his toy store with a little-seen zebra for a butler.  He’s really quaint and precious and (supposedly) charming, what the British call “twee.” Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) is his only clerk; she wanted to be a concert pianist, and is forever playing an imaginary piano, but she lost confidence and wound up working at the store.  Which she loves, but still would rather be a pianist.

Constantly hanging around the store is Eric Applebaum, about 10, who collects hats—a plot element that’s absolutely meaningless.  When we see his hat collection, we expect it to be charming, but it’s ordinary.  The hat collecting is a substitute for something lacking in Eric’s life, but it’s never clear what that might be.

Magorium hires Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), a CPA devoted to his work, to balance the unkempt books for the toy store.  For no obvious reason, Magorium starts calling Weston “the mutant.”  Why?  Beats me.  He doesn’t look or act mutated, he’s just bookish and strait-laced.

What plot the movie has involves just why Magorium is having the books balanced for the first time, how this affects Molly, her burgeoning but slight attraction to Weston (and his to her), and how Eric reacts to all this.  The movie slowly makes its way toward the highly foreseeable end.

It’s interrupted throughout by the store’s customers—the place alternates between being mobbed with crowds of goggle-eyed children and their parents, and practically empty.  Brandt Gordon’s production design is the best aspect of the movie—it’s limited, but creatively so.  The store seems both cavernous and cramped, full of shelves and counters which are full of toys.  Someone showed very good sense in having almost all the toys be real ones which actually can be bought in toy stores—but this also allows for a lot of product placement, offsetting the budget somewhat, I’m sure.

Occasionally, Hoffman does manage to be charming for a few minutes, but there’s a smugness underlying his performance—the actor is convinced he’s adorable—that constantly eats away at the role.  Something of the same problem afflicts Zach Mills’ performance as Eric: he’s all too aware he’s a cute little boy doing cute little things.  After awhile, all this cute will produce a certain degree of nauseau in some viewers.

Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman, however, rise above all this, creating real characters out of a script determined to avoid realism.  Whenever they’re on screen, the picture springs to life for a few moments, but then stumbles again when Hoffman turns up, smirking and lisping.

Technically, the film is successful.  There aren’t as many special effects as might be expected, but what’s here work very well.  They’re not overly ambitious—just toys moving a little, a couple of them flying as well—and suggest that the movie overall should have toned down its ambitions.

As a Blu-ray disc, the movie is exceptional.  With all these crowded (but not cluttered) shelves of toys, there’s an abundance of textures and details, all rendered crisply and attractively in high definition.  The LossLess sound, too, is excellent; it’s as crisp as the images, carrying tonal definition to the highs and the lows.  Technically, the film is a success.

But as a movie, it’s a failure.

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