Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

2007, Movie, G, 94 mins


Not every G-rated children's movie tosses around words like "triskaidekaphobia," or uses Shakespeare's stage directions for King Lear to explain death to its young audience. But this isn't your usual kiddie fare: Beneath the initial glare and blare is a quietly literate script by first-time writer-director Zach Helm that deals directly with big issues like believing in yourself and living on after a loved one passes away. But is it heavy? Not really.

Tucked away in downtown Los Angeles, on a block otherwise crowded with office towers, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a popular, old-world-style toy store that's nearly as anachronistic and eccentric as its proprietor, Mr. Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman). With his bushy eyebrows, Quentin Crisp upsweep and candy-striped suits, this lisping, self-described "toy impresario, aficionado and avid shoe wearer" claims to be 243 years old, says he once trounced Abraham Lincoln at hopscotch and boasts of having made toys for Napoleon himself. He also keeps a zebra as a pet. Mr. Magorium is the heart and soul of the shop where toys spring to life for those who believe — chief among them Mr. Magorium's 9-year-old assistant, Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), a lonely kid with a huge hat collection but no friends. Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) is the store's manager, at least for the time being… as much as Molly shares Mr. Magorium's love of all things childlike and his appreciation of fun, running a magic toy shop was never her plan. Once a piano prodigy who dreamed of composing her own concertos, Molly lost sight of herself — and her self-confidence — somewhere on the road to adulthood. She's has made up her mind to quit the shop and focus on composing, but just as she's about to give notice, Mr. Magorium reveals a plan of his own: After 113 years at the helm of the Wonder Emporium, Mr. Magorium is retiring, and he intends to hand over the whole operation to Molly. In order to accurately assess the value of the store, he hires CPA Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), a decidedly unmagical accountant whom Mr. Magorium refers to simply as "Mutant." The news comes as an unwelcome shock to Molly and the store itself, which seems imbued with the spirit of the temperamental children who play there all day long. The shop soon goes into a sulk, its walls turning black and the toys malfunctioning. Perhaps the Wonder Emporium senses something Molly doesn't yet realize: Mr. Magorium is dying.

Like most recent kids' films, the first half hour is too loud, too fast, too brightly colored (the pleasures lie in Mr. Magorium's subtle offhand comments and sweet background details like that heartbreakingly lonely sock monkey), and too dependent on movies like CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005) and HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE (2004) for ideas. But Helm aims to do more than simply distract kids for 90 minutes with flashy special effects and silly pratfalls. He actually wants to give them something to think about, and while his musings on the nature of faith and belief are familiar (particularly to anyone who's seen Walden Media's other productions, like CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE and the failed THE SEEKER: THE DARK IS RISING), his approach to dealing with death is refreshing and may actually prove a useful, nontraumatic tool for parents who find themselves faced with having to explain the big "D" long before they're ready. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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