Whimsy is a tenuous cinematic element. Apply it too thickly, and audiences recoil under its treaclely tenets. Not enough, and viewers will wonder what the puff and stuff is about. Few filmmakers have actually managed the shaky aesthetic quality – and all of them are named Tim Burton. For all others, the quixotic or idealized becomes a motion picture burden that they are ill-prepared to bear. It takes the skills of a surgeon and the metal acuity of a genius to avoid the sappy, the sentimental, the predictable or the ditzy. Manage everything well and you have a lasting work of visionary art. Mess it up, however, and you’re stuck scrambling for significance. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium suffers from some of whimsy’s generic blight. When it’s good, it glows. When it fails, it’s almost fatal.
After living to the ripe old age of 243, and down to his last pair of favored shoes, Mr. Magorium is preparing to permanently leave his amazing metropolitan toy store. Hoping that his protégé and long time manager Molly Mahoney will take over the shop, he confides his oncoming mortality to her. Things don’t go quite as planned. Mahoney fancies herself a composer and concert pianist, a fledging career as a prodigy cut short by her own self doubt. She’d rather explore the world of music than be stuck running the Emporium. Still, Mr. Magorium has his mind made up, and he hires a “counting mutant”/accountant named Henry Weston to balance his books. Oblivious to the wonders around him, the bureaucrat discovers a disorganized mess of out of date receipts and unpaid accounts. It will take a lonely child named Eric Applebaum to bring all three factions together. For him, life would be empty without Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.
Featuring one of those Method actor turns that gives the post-modern movement a ridiculous, rose-colored bruise and just enough imagination to keep the protests at bay, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is a lighthearted and less noxious Night at the Museum. Where the god-awful Ben Stiller family film was a mess of maudlin eye candy and derivative showboating spectacle, Zach Helm’s take on the fanciful is a lot more appealing. Best known for scripting the Will Ferrell meta-comedy Stranger than Fiction, this first time director puts a whole lot of possibilities on his plate. He must contend with a goofball Dustin Hoffman, a slightly off-kilter Natalie Portman, a winning (if wasted) Jason Bateman, and the typical kid actor baggage of child star Zach Mills. Cram it all into a frame overloaded with CGI bewilderment and peppered with EST-level pronouncements re: finding your bliss, and you’ve got a New Age Roald Dahl without any of said author’s caustic commentary.
Indeed, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is so gosh darned closed off you wish it could find a way out. There has to be some reality to your daydreams or the whole thing plays like an elaborate joke – and the audience isn’t typically in on the punchline. That juxtaposition is crucial, since it sets up a frame of reference for us to work within. We buy the bedazzling that much more readily. Helm hasn’t quite figured this out yet. Indeed, when Henry the Mutant arrives, we think the film has finally found its fulcrum. All the jaw-dropping dizziness onscreen will finally be moderated by a “Bah! Humbug!” bad guy. Instead, Bateman comes across as trapped in his own bumbling officiousness. Instead of reflecting Magorium’s magic back at us, he thinks about the forms he has to fill out in order to maintain the plot’s purpose. This may be the first film that requires paperwork in order to settle its story.
Hoffman doesn’t help matters much, though he’s hardly a problem. Combing several previous over the top tendencies – the voice from Tootise, the false bravado from Hook – and adding the slightest lisp to remove any last trace of manliness, he’s an ephemeral imp, more noted for his shop’s otherworldly abilities than his own prestidigitation. We buy into the gimmick essentially because the actor seems to be having so much fun. Yet one can’t escape the ‘doing it for the grandkids’ motive of this one time above the marquee name. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same man who redefined the ‘60s with his turn as the ultimate counterculture hero in The Graduate. Apparently age and growing financial obligations will do that to an actor – just ask Robert DeNiro.
And then there’s Natalie Portman. Talk about your schizophrenic sidekicks. One moment, she’s happy as a couple of clams working the Emporium’s many mysteries. The next, she’s lost in a haze of self doubt and disgruntled employee ennui. We get some initial indications that she doesn’t believe the store is her life’s ambition, but the way she protects it from those outside the Magorium “family’ tends to negate such a stance. She’s a walking, talking, breathing, bewildering set of contradictions, and Helm does very little to straighten her out. This makes the last act epiphany emotionally hollow. Instead of celebrating her decision, we are left wondering how she arrived at it. While Bateman is just fine, and Mills grows on you after a while, our two leads make the going simultaneously smooth and oh so rough.
Still, if you can shake off their conflicting continence and simply enjoy the visual splendor and invention at hand, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium will basically win you over. Unlike Barry Levinson’s Toys, which tried to impart a “No War” initiative onto what was, essentially, a veiled star vehicle for the then tolerable Robin Williams, Helm isn’t out to make some grand political or social statement. Instead, he just wants us all to revert to childhood and go with the flight of fancy flow – and in some cases, it’s dead easy. A room full of CGI balls is a wondrous treat, while a similarly styled collection of trains whisks us away on its HO scale scope. The Big Book, a tome that can instantly produce any item imaginable, gets a nice if far too short celebration, and a lone sock monkey seems to carry all the sadness and sentiment the rest of the movie misses.
Even better, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium doesn’t test our sense of schmaltz – at least, not that often. It wanders between sharp and sugary, honest and hokey, and never offers up the kind of cynical, post-modern bill of goods that leaves films like Museum struggling for sustainability. Of course, what’s missing from this and other examples like it is a sense of timelessness. While it may be perfectly feasible for a festive holiday getaway, a chance to park the kiddies while you gird their advancing materialism with more examples of the season’s crass commercialization, it just doesn’t have much staying power. Indeed, when it comes to future viewings, it’s hard to see the wee ones scrambling to stick this into the DVD player over and over again. As a one time experience, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is fresh, fun, and deeply flawed. There’s a great story buried inside its uneven tone and lack of creative classicism. It’s good, but not great.