Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium begins with this unusual bit of credit: “Supposedly a film by Zach Helm.” It’s odd and charming and self-aware, suggesting that authorship is a tenuous thing, even raising the question of what “a film” might be, both useful metaphysical points to ponder. As this particular film goes on to adopt a child’s perspective, namely, that of nine-year-old narrator Eric (Zach Mills), the movie’s look at the relationship of author and text might have become even more interesting.
Unfortunately, it does not. This isn’t for want of trying: Eric’s story is focused on three adults he admires but doesn’t quite comprehend (this would be to his credit, as these adults are all self-absorbed in the way unsocialized adults tend to be in children’s stories). And each adult has a strained relationship with the story’s primary text—the Wonder Emporium, a magical toy store. Owned by Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman, in a egregiously stylized and un-charming performance), the store is managed by Mahoney (Natalie Portman) and under scrutiny by the accountant Henry (Jason Batman). The store appears to breathe and thrill and pout, its walls turning color and throbbing, its contents responding to the kids who play with them. All this makes the store a more fluid and energetic performer than any of the adults looking after it.
The adults aren’t fully to blame for their dreariness, as they are saddled with a cumbersome script that too plainly emulates Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (main problem here: trying to keep up with Tim Burton is the ultimate lost cause). Though Mr. Magorium is 243 years old, wears zany out-of-time suits, spouts self-conscious aphorisms (“Unlikely adventures require unlikely tools”), and keeps a zebra in his apartment above the store, he is not at all enchanting. And that’s a problem if you’re leading a pack of children and childlike adults into a new chapter (along with the breathing store, this the film’s other major metaphor, its structure as a book, with chapters with quirky titles like “No, Seriously, Watch” and “Fun + Mental = Fundamental”).
Aside from being a site where the adults can learn their inevitable life lessons, the emporium is home to a grunty bald man (who has been writing the 243-year-old Mr. Magorium’s life story for decades) and a meeting place for kids—it seems always to be packed with young people greedy for entertainment that is not TV-derived. This would seem to be healthy, except that the toys fall somewhere between delights and product placements (a room full of balls that bounce incessantly, Lincoln Logs that can be assembled into a life-sized Abraham Lincoln, as well as books, Slinkys, and spinning gizmos), and seem oddly designed to limit social interactions. The kids are generic, literally designated in the film’s closing credits by their one-note activities (“The Girl Chased by a Goose,” “The Boy Who Opened the Door”).
Eric, who does have a name, would seem to be the mediator between his nameless peers and the grownups, except the latter never do spend much time with their seeming clients and neither, apparently, does Eric. His mom (Rebecca Northan) worries that he doesn’t have any friends his own age, and he has an explanation: “It’s not my fault people don’t like me. They think I’m weird.” Still, he promises to make an effort, deciding the next day to approach Henry, an equally misfit boy. (Henry, in need of friends too, has turned his isolation into an endless vocation: “I never stop working,” he asserts, when Eric asks him to play checkers after work.)
All their lives change when Mr. Magorium announces his imminent departure. When he says he intends to leave the store to Mahoney as his “legacy,” she is at first uncomprehending. Eric explains, “I think he means he’s going to heaven.” His phrasing is quaint, if startling for Mahoney, who subsequently does her best to convince Mr. Magorium to stay on earth just a bit longer. Unfortunately, her best shot involves a day of “fun” activities (like dancing and tra-la-laing in the park), a sequence so stiff and dismal that you wonder that he doesn’t shuffle off this mortal coil even sooner than he’s planned. Instead, he thanks her for the effort and leaves her to fret some more about how she will possibly run the store without him—even though she’s been running it for years.
This has to do with Mahoney’s lack of self-confidence. A former piano prodigy, she been hanging out at the Emporium since she was a child. Working there makes her both happy and sad. She helps kids with crayons (“No matter what they tell you, you don’t have to stay in the lines,” she observes), but can’t help but wonder what’s happened to her prodigy-ness. “I’m 23,” she says, her youth emphasized by her narrow-slacks-short-hair-and-layered-t-shirts look, “And everyone’s still talking about my potential.” Prodded by Magorium, she will realize that potential, of course, but you can’t help but wonder how come this girl can’t be at the center of her own story.
It turns out that—aside from Magorium, whose fritzy hair makes him way too disturbing to be more than the avuncular employer—Mahoney’s most ardent believer is Henry. On his arrival, she and Magorium nickname him the Mutant, because he’s stuffy and humorless, not responding to her not-so-clever jokes (“I’m laughing on the inside,” he says on his way back to the office where’s overwhelmed by piles of papers and files). Instantly dedicated to resolving the “serious problems” he discovers in Magorium’s raggedy records (an IOU from Thomas Edison, an unpaid $3,000 bill from a company in South America), Henry is obviously in need of his own life alterations—indicated by the ease with which he falls into make-believe with Eric up in the boy’s bedroom: on discovering them, Eric’s mom doesn’t buy Eric’s suggestion Henry is his “new friend,” and promptly shoos the grown man away.
Imagine how worried she’d be if she knew that Eric was spending so much of his time in a store that pouts and houses a scary bald guy in the basement.