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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007


It’s amazing that the House of Mouse never thought of this before: taking one of their signature, slightly saccharine animated heroines and tossing her – pen and ink pell mell – into the modern world. Via careful character matching, or the company’s patented cartooning techniques, this forlorn beauty could come in contact with some real metropolitan beasts. Even better, the anthropomorphic world of 2D fantasy could come crashing into the realities of a 3D world, with lots of satiric hi-jinx ensuing. And just imagine if, for once, Disney had a sense of humor about it all. Instead of lording over its legacy like a deranged demagogue, it could use the effort as a knowing nod and wink to all the critics and complainers who’ve labeled the studio out of touch, both in its aging artistry and its lack of contemporary commercial appeal. Handled properly, you’d be looking at a monster hit – and a celebrated return to form. Well, get ready audiences, because Uncle Walt’s wise men have indeed devised such a stunner – and it’s called Enchanted.


When we first meet the fair Giselle, she’s singing about love’s true kiss in the far off fairytale realm of Andalasia. With the help of her woodland creature friends, she is making an effigy or her dreamboat desire, the spitting image of none other than Prince Edward. Naturally, his highness’s evil mother, Queen Narissa, wants to keep her seat on the throne. If her son gets hitched, he inherits the realm. Hoping to avoid a meeting (and a marriage), she puts loyal servant/sidekick Nathaniel on the payroll. He thwarts Edward every step of the way. Sadly, it’s all for naught. Giselle and her true love meet, and prepare for their wedding. As a last ditch effort, Narissa sends her future daughter-in-law to the one place her boy can’t find her – the real world. Manhattan, New York actually. There, Giselle is ‘rescued’ by a cynical divorce attorney named Robert Phillip. A single dad raising six year old Morgan, he’s been dating the Type-A career gal Nancy for nearly five years. As Edward and Nathaniel head to the big Apple themselves, Giselle tries to teach Robert about love – and starts to discover her true feelings as well.


Enchanted is a sugar spun delight. It’s as fluffy as a bunch of newborn bunnies and as cute as an entire collection of buttons. It features a fantastic, star-making performance by actress Amy Adams, a wicked sense of humor, and enough cartoon/CG spectacle to keep even the most easily distracted tweener happy as a clambake. As an entertainment, it’s beyond chipper. As acknowledgement of the standard fairytale formulas, it’s wonderfully wise. Not really a parody in the traditional sense, Enchanted earns a lot of its wit from shamelessly embracing the archetypes that many feel have deadened hand drawn animation in the last three decades. Toss in a classic score by long time Disney hit maker Alan Menken (working again with lyrical collaborator Stephen Schwartz) and a flawless meshing of animation with actuality, and you’ve got something that stands as a post-modern Mickey-made classic.


The main reason for the movie’s unflappable appeal is lead Amy Adams. While Oscar nominated for her turn in Junebug (how many remember her…or the film?), she is simply astounding here. So perky and upbeat she could make a corpse conga, there is an amazing amount of bright spirit and uncomplicated emotion in this pure, pretty princess. Even when working with New York’s notorious wildlife (a classic moment has her straightening up Robert’s apartment with the aid of cockroaches, flies, rats, and pigeons), she’s snowier than Ms. White and sunnier than a certain Cindy. Without Adams’ dead-on performance, Enchanted wouldn’t work. Instead, it would be Aquamarine. In fact, the closest any previous film comes to this is Ron Howard’s hilarious Splash – and that fabled literal fish out of water tale had the late great John Candy around to keep things rib tickling.


No, what Enchanted has is a noble supporting cast including James Marsden as your typically dense Prince, Susan Sarandon as a workable wicked witch, beefy Brit Timothy Spall as Nathaniel, and a goofy animated chipmunk named Pip that steals every scene he/it is in. Grey’s Anatomy fans might wonder about their favorite manly medico, Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd. Luckily, Patrick Dempsey is very good here, doing quite a bit with what is, clearly, the film’s most underwritten role. We don’t really see his character’s warming to Giselle as much as expect it, and his last act heroism is oddly uninvolving. Indeed, if Enchanted has a flaw, it’s the lack of an emotional epiphany. Since we are dealing in predictability (it’s part of a cartoon’s model), we know who’s ending up with whom. While getting there is fun, it’s not the three-hanky happiness we could have received.


Still, Kevin Lima deserves as much credit as Ms. Adams for pulling this off. As a director, he worked on previous Disney efforts like A Goofy Movie, Tarzan, and 102 Dalmatians, and he really outdoes himself here. Taking a savvy script by Bill Kelly and introducing all manner of genre in-jokes into the mix, we wind up with a slightly surreal, decidedly non-sappy lark. The musical moments – both drawn and danced – are expertly handled, and Lima really understands how to build a scene. When Pip disrupts a pizza parlor, or a costumed ball clashes with fairytale villainy, we completely buy the jarring juxtaposition. Thanks to the expert performances, the naturally unreal feel of New York itself, the careful controlling of the narrative, and the heartfelt sense of happiness and fun, any minor missteps are instantly forgiven and forgotten.


In a legacy that once saw the studio dominate both the live action and hand drawn cinematic realm, Enchanted is a real renaissance. It proves that Disney was only down, not out, when it came to challenging up and coming classicists like Pixar – and they didn’t need to rely on crass, pop culture heavy efforts like Shrek or Ice Age to restand its ground. Certainly set up to be a frequently revisited future franchise (we get a happily ever after, but there’s clearly more material to explore here), they’ll be no complaining as long as the sensational standards created here are kept. Who would have thought that after a year which saw a formidable Fred Claus, a middling Mr. Magorium, and an underachieving Underdog, that the best family film would find the House of Mouse embracing and redirecting years of aesthetic atrophy. The results are as charmed as the title suggests.



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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007


The indirect partnership of author Stephen King and writer/director Frank Darabont remains one of film’s most fascinating. Somehow, after crafting several genre scripts (for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Blob remake, and the Fly sequel), the soon to be cinematic savoir hooked up with George Lucas, working on the heralded Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Yet Darabont never forgot his earlier experiences crafting a short film out of King’s least supernatural story, the autobiographical cancer tale The Women in the Room. From there, he was determined to tackle another obscure tale from the fear master’s canon- the prison drama Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The results, considered by many to be a mid-90’s masterpiece, cemented his status as the ultimate interpreter of King’s work. Even the slightly bloated Green Mile couldn’t undo his reputation.


So when it was announced that Darabont would next take on the much beloved novella, The Mist, fans almost instantly began foaming. Even when less than impressive casting and the director’s decision to go ‘low budget’ were announced, the geeks were prepared for macabre manna. It was well worth the wait. The Mist is destined to go down as a modern horror classic. After all the pro and con Stephen King sniping is said and done, when expectations have been shattered and new realities firmly affixed, those who ever doubted Darabont’s ability will see the frightening forest for the desolate, deconstructionist trees. The filmmaker deserves a great deal of credit for what he’s accomplished here. Like Stephen Spielberg’s revisionist attempt at a realistic fantasy blockbuster with his reality based War of the World, the man behind this innovative inversion of King’s creepshow has crafted the most unconventional conventional b-movie ever.


When a powerful Nor’easter tears through a tiny Maine town, movie poster artist and family man David Drayton surveys the damage. A massive branch has torn through his studio, and a stubborn neighbor’s dead tree has destroyed his beautiful boathouse. After heading into town to buy supplies, he is stunned to see a local man running into the store, screaming. He claims that there is something in the mist, and as the patrons watch the fog roll over the parking lot, the screams of those stuck outside suggest that there may be a presence there. At first, some think it’s a joke. That includes the big city lawyer Brent Norton and local yokel Jim Grondin. On the other side of the situation is bitchy Bible thumper Mrs. Carmody. She’s convinced its Judgment Day, and suggests the shoppers use a blood sacrifice to appease a vengeful God. Between Drayton, who believes in truth, and Carmody, whose stirring up dissent, clear sides are drawn. About the only level headed individual is store clerk OIlie – that is, until the monsters actually arrive.


Everything you expect from this kind of story is here, - the otherworldly setup, the recognizable heroes and villains, the coincidental clashes, the big moment attacks, the smaller sequences of suspense. There’s even a nice amount of gore and some unexpected darkness. But Darabont is not content to simply let this opportunity go by without messing a little with the mannerisms. The Mist is so purposeful in how it thwarts genre ethos that it’s almost arrogant. There are times when you can literally see the director ducking the likely to lunge over into the unpredictable. This is a movie that has no music during its first 80 minutes, that never announces via sonic cues when the terror is about the strike. It’s also a film that lets its character’s core elements overstay their welcome. Good guys are almost too noble, baddies belligerent in their shocking psychotic cravenness.


Take Thomas Jane’s David Drayton. He’s the perfect hypocritical hero. Out of one side of his mouth comes a calming, ‘let’s work together’ sort of spiel. On the other hand, he gets his ‘followers’ together to horde food and plan an escape. Similarly, he warns others about apparent acts of altruistic sacrifice. Yet he’s typically the first to volunteer for any suicide mission. Though he’s more a b-list personality than a real blockbuster anchor, Jane is very good here. He balances both sides of his protagonist with Darabont-intended ease. Sitting on the other end of the situational scale is outright horror Marcia Gay Harden. Her Jesus loving Mrs. Carmody is not just some Gospel spewing shrew. She’s a manipulative cow, the perfect embodiment of the Jim Jones type of cult killer that King used originally to formulate the story. There are moments where you literally want to reach up from your seat and wring her self-righteous neck. That’s either great writing, great directing, great acting, or a combination of all three.


Indeed, what happens between people is far more potent than the various chaotic creature sequences in the film. When King wrote them, they were perfect mind’s eye payoff, gifts for the reader rapidly turning pages. In the film version of The Mist, they are the inevitable catalysts, the reasons for the characters challenging – and in some cases, harming – each other. Without them, we wouldn’t have the standoff between Drayton and Andre Braugher’s Norton. There wouldn’t be the reunion between young lovers Sally and AWOL GI Wayne…or the fatal finish to their relationship. We wouldn’t have the preaching, the plotting, the gun waving anarchy, or the fear-based fisticuffs. And then there are the fiends. Some may argue that they’re rather unbelievable in their computer generated junkiness, but that’s another Darabont objective. He wants his terror to be derived from seemingly silly entities. It makes the bigger ‘bugs’ waiting out in the mist that much more horrifying.


And here’s another clear caveat – don’t believe the half-baked hype about the “new ending” either. Yes, Darabont does stray rather significantly from King’s original conclusion, but there’s a reason for that. You can’t have an ambiguous send-off after 90 minutes of purposefully paced realism. Imagine if the characters that you’ve followed for nearly two hours simply got in a vehicle, plotted a course, and headed on down the highway. Fade out. Roll credits. There’d be much more fervor over such an anticlimactic moment than the angst being aimed at Darabont’s decision. Logic states that a bleak and rationality based narrative demands an equally dour and grim finish. Is it painful and purposefully harsh? Yes. Does it ruin the experience overall? Only if you’re the kind of person who can’t stare the truth in its desperate and ill-prepared face.


After all The Mist is not a movie about semi-super human men challenging the forces of darkness like invincible immortals. This is not the kind of film where antagonists heed the pleas of those wanting compromise or the reckless reel in their hasty reactions. Darabont has used King’s creative premise as the outline for a dissection of panic – how people react to it, and how our very humanity helps to fuel it. What we are witnessing is not really a horror movie, but a mock doc depiction of how man is more menacing than some interstellar interlopers. It’s an uncomfortable lesson to learn, and it may put some people off this otherwise remarkable motion picture. Frank Darabont may by now be a cliché, the first filmmaking name associated with the most successful genre author ever. But there is nothing formulaic, or false here. The Mist is magnificent.



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Tuesday, Nov 20, 2007


Music is given credit for a lot of things. It forms the soundtrack of our lives, has charms to soothe the savage breast, and expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent. It’s our heartbeat, our sense of spirit, and exposes the depth of our very soul. It is also a callous and cruel mistress, messing with us when we don’t want to be manipulated and infusing us with aspirations we may never attain. Because of its excruciatingly personal and private nature (one man’s Beethoven is another’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard), it makes for a rather tenuous cinematic base. While your story may be sublime, the songs or sounds you use to accent it can come across as atonal and discordant. Oddly enough, the exact opposite happens in Kirsten Sheridan’s disastrous August Rush. The melodic moments are some of the best ever captured on film. Too bad the rest of the narrative is as nauseating as a boy band ballad.


Living life as a picked upon orphan in the last Dickensonian home in all of post-modern society, young August Rush dreams of two things – finding his birth parents and making music. Seems he envisions his biologicals as a famed concert cellist and a punk spunky rock and roller. After a one night stand, a baby boy was born. Not wanting to see his daughter destroy her chances as a virtuoso, her domineering dad tells Lyla Novacek that her son died. At least she’s still part of the process. Moody frontman Louis Connelly tries to reconnect with his post-performance fling, but he’s instantly whisked off on the rest of his tour. Escaping to New York, August is befriended by Arthur, a young street performer. Seems he works for faux foster father figure Wizard. He and his other homeless youth play music around the city, and their glorified guardian collects a percentage. When August turns out to be a prodigy, Wizard smells success. But our undersized hero wants more than that. He could care less about concerts, or Julliard, or the debut of his first rhapsody. He just wants his parents – and his music just might be the means of bringing them together.


Heavy-handed, undeniably saccharine, and about as magical as a clown at a kid’s party, August Rush is an implausible, pus-covered pixie stick. It’s Oliver without the twist, a well-meaning lament fashioned out of arrogance, artificiality, and artlessness. You’d think that someone with director Kirsten Sheridan’s aesthetic lineage (her dad is My Left Foot/In America helmer Jim Sheridan) would be better at making magic out of such melodrama and music. But unfortunately, she’s unsure about how to handle such an ‘adult fairy tale’. Yes, August Rush is one of those films that announces its archetypal intentions from the very start. It salutes you with schmaltz and then turns up the convolutions until the clichés no longer have room to breath. Eventually, they die off in waves of unexplored potentiality, resulting in a literal ghost of a film. There are times when this maudlin muck is so lightweight and wispy, we fear a sudden sneeze from the audience will cause the screen to go blank.


Part of the problem is the story the screenplay sets up. Happenstance usually isn’t this hokey, but for some reason, writers Nick Castle and James Hart want to make every plot point as sappy and sentimental as possible. These are the same guys who turned Peter Pan into an adolescent rude boy filtered through Robin Williams’ hirsute persona in Hook, so perhaps there’s an excuse after all. Speaking of the cinematic Sasquatch, Mrs. Don’tfire is present as the Bono version of Dickens’ child exploiter and he’s about as manipulative as the Victorian pickpocket pimp. We keep waiting for the ghost of Oliver Reed to show up and beat him, and perhaps co-star Keri Russell to death. While the babe in the woods approach is nothing new to moviemaking, Castle and Hart make it so old and moldy that it makes us question such a founding formula. There is never a believable moment of reality or fantasy in this film. Everything feels forced, purposefully played for maximum mawkishness.


This includes the performances. Russell’s Lyla is so empty and unfulfilled she’s like a blow up doll. Even when desperate to locate her child, she comes across as calmly coming apart at the seams. Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Louis is even worse. Morrissey was never this melancholy. Heck, Hamlet’s desperate to rise from the grave and sue this character for giving brooding male leads a bad name. Williams is his usual abominable self, reducing Wizard to the same six body gestures the comedian turned hack actor has milked since the Me Decade, and Terrance Howard (as the Child Protective Services officer) appears to have wandered in from another movie all together. He’s so out of touch with what Sheridan is striving for, you could almost blame the entire fiasco on his non-presence.


Sadly, that status goes to Freddie Highmore. Struggling between an unbelievable American accent and something best considered “Madonna/Tina Turner Ersatz English”, the one time child star stinks up the joint here. Instead of playing naïve and trusting, he’s like a common sense idiot savant. Show him the absolute worst decision to make, and he’ll embrace it like a lost puppy. And this is supposed to be someone with an innate, natural gift for music. True, Sheridan does handle his ‘discovery’ sequences well, the beating of a guitar’s strings, or the chording of a pipe organ having the necessary moments of majesty to move us. But then we come crashing back to quasi-reality, a place where Russell barely fingers her instrument and Rhys Meyers sings like a slightly more macho Billy Corgan. August Rush is not a movie about the harmony in our head as the conceived cacophony that passes for performance in film. Even our title character’s signature symphony is an amalgamation of staid sonic stigmas.


Still, this is the kind of movie that connects with audiences, possibly because they don’t know any better. Tears will well up as the completely predictable ending arrives, mechanical obviousness meshing with last minute personality reforms to destroy anything remotely suggesting cinematic credibility. Frankly, it’s impossible to imagine how any of this could have worked. Sheridan doesn’t demonstrate any real artisanship, but her failings don’t completely undermine the results. No, August Rush fizzles because of several unsuccessful factors. It is sloppily strung together, loaded with characters we don’t care about, and disrespectful to the elements that supposedly make up its meaning. Music may be the universal language, but this film speaks with the most misguided of mother tongues. August Rush is not a flight of fancy. It’s a dissonant plane crash.



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Thursday, Nov 15, 2007


The reason we respond to myth is simple. The epic paints the plainest of universal pronouncements – good vs. evil, right vs. wrong – in images so stunning that we can’t help but embrace the message. It simultaneously taps into our philosophical and faith-based pleasure centers while manipulating our impressions along massive moralistic lines. Still, this doesn’t mean that all legend makes great cinema. For every Lord of the Rings, there are dozens of preachy period pieces. Indeed, one of the main reason the classics avoid motion picture manipulation is that what sounded good as spoken history frequently plays as stodgy and almost inert on screen. Such is the case with Beowulf. Like a Woody Allen joke gone awry, anyone attempting to bring the story to life has had to overcome a litany of high school literature lessons. Luckily Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis was up to the challenge.


After his kingdom is continuously attacked by a wicked mountain troll named Grendel, King Hrothgar puts out a call to any hero who will slay the beast. For them, a solid gold mead horn and the honor of the royal bed is the reward. Into the fray walks Beowulf, legendary conqueror, slayer of all sorts of vile monsters. After being warned of the demon’s foul temper, our champion tempts fate and lures it to the Great Hall. There, they battle to the death. With victory in hand, Beowulf then heads into the caves to kill the wicked witch who begat such demonic despair. Instead of slaughter, however, he’s seduced. Decades pass, and with it, the infallibility of Beowulf’s rule. When a new creature arrives to destroy the realm, the longtime leader must face the mistakes he made in his arrogance, a chance to save his legacy once and for all.


Beowulf brays and boasts, it overwhelms and it soars. Like the tendency to exaggerate inherent in its hero, it’s a majestic movie that doesn’t quite add up to the epic we anticipate. But by pushing the very edges of the CG’s technological tolerances, and introducing the third dimension as a way to heighten the histrionics, director Roger Zemeckis has fashioned one of the most satisfying popcorn flicks of the year. No other film in what is rapidly becoming an impressive mainstream movie going season is as awe-inspiring, as totally given over to the visual splendor of the artform as this warhorse telling of the classic poem. Sure, the storyline has been retrofitted to encompass more modern ideals, and animation tends to dull what are usually overripe human posturing, but when it looks this good, and entertains this well, who cares if its cartoons doing the job.


Granted, these are some remarkable looking bitmaps, the realism missing from most of the medium’s stylized renderings in full effect here. Ray Winstone’s title character will make the maidens swoon, especially during his infamous nude battle with key monster Grendel. And Angelina Jolie is on hand to keep the lads lathered up, though her gold gilding and high heeled demon is a tad too modern for the era she exists in. From Anthony Hopkins portly king to John Malkovich’s conniving court advisor, the closeness to true human performance is absolutely astounding. Miles away from Zemeckis’ previous experiment in motion capture (the cool but quite plastic Polar Express) there is a roughness and a texture here that is hard to escape. When we see Beowulf in close-up, his chin stubble and wispy blond hair respond to every movement. Equally impressive are sequences where physical endurance and acumen must be recreated. Instead of robotic and limited, we see actual stuntwork and spectacle.


This is an eyepopping experience, especially given the fact that it is only being shown in either IMAX or standard 3D. Yes, you have to wear the goofy glasses (polarized, not the never quite effective two color kind) but it’s well worth it. The stereoscopic image is truly breathtaking. When we travel across the sea, watching Beowulf’s boat battle a series of Perfect Storm style waves, the terror and triumph of the sequence are unmatched. Similarly, the celebrated mead hall where much of the action takes place has the proper balance of video game perspective and backdrop believability. From the last act dragon attack that sees our hero literally hanging by a thread as the beast lunges and leaps from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the highest tower, to the introduction of Grendel with an amazing tracking shot that ends up on the creature’s throbbing eardrum and profusely bleeding head, Zemeckis and his artisans have amplified the aesthetic range of this kind of creativity.


That goes for the aforementioned fiend in particular. Voiced by the godlike Crispin Glover (who should be in every movie by cinematic mandate) and rendered rotting and repugnant, there is a true soul buried inside this crude collection of cartilage and pain. At first, one is unsure of the design being utilized. Zemeckis goes a tad overboard in turning Grendel into something all together otherworldly. His misshapen misery is so pronounced, it’s virtually intolerable. Add in the agonizing vocalizations by Glover and the tortured nature of the character is sickening. But when given over to quieter moments, when we see an injured Grendel speaking to his mother, the interaction is intriguing – and then enlightening. We grow in our appreciation of this fiend, and find ourselves missing him once the movie dispenses with his importance.


Indeed, once Beowulf moves into Act Two, it tends to lag a little. Hopkins’ boorish ruler does enliven things, but Robin Wright Penn is not the most compelling love/lust object. Her queen is too clued in, to post-modern manipulative to warrant a conqueror’s ardor. It’s a similar situation with Jolie. Unless we are to believe that every 6th Century Dane was incapable of refusing a vixen’s charms, her come hither slink smacks of Hollywood, not the hinterland. Indeed, the women are the weak link throughout Beowulf, and if there’s one lesson to be learned from the monster success of 300, it’s to keep the ladies as far in the background as possible. They need only be brought out as plot catalysts, not narrative foundations.


Similarly, the film fumbles its pacing. The first half, dealing almost exclusively with Grendel, is so adrenaline pumping and kinetic that whatever comes after is bound to disappoint. Even more telling, the next section more or less repeats what we’ve seen before. While not completely faithful to the original epic, the plot points from said literary hallmark are all in place. This means there’s a marginal predictability, a familiarity that may soften your initial enthusiasm. But when eye candy is this sumptuous, when we can literally watch a rat travel from great hall rafter to falcon’s claw, when our hero’s post-conflict sweat glistens with a real sense of exertion and effort, you know you’re in the hands of cinematic masters.


Beowulf will probably not be a hit, unfortunately. The storytelling is too fractured and the initial majesty muted by one too many maudlin heart-to-hearts. In an era when action typically means nonstop ballistics, where scene longevity trumps logic every time, Zemeckis’ recast myth is just too abjectly old school. It wants to luxuriate in its visuals and crush with the unbridled power of cinematic imagination. And for the most part, it does. Audiences may not appreciate the over the top tendencies and cheeky chest-thumping, but there is something delightfully appealing about such 3D bravado. CGI or not, this Beowulf demands attention. So what if it has to move a few outsized mountains to do it.



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Thursday, Nov 15, 2007


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. 



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