'Magorium' Overcomes Treacle, Ends Up a Treat
The writer-director Zach Helm, who wrote "Stranger Than Fiction" and makes his feature directorial debut here, keeps his storybookishness human-sized and I suspect (though you never know, even with children of your own) that the average preteen will take to it. Helm doesn't write down to media-saturated kids, or up to media-saturated adults. He came up with this script nine years ago, when he was all of 23. (While at DePaul University, Helm worked at a toy store.) While "Magorium" is small, and simple, and the cleverness beams on and off, it is also heartfelt—a reminder to loners of all ages that life is not meant to be an isolated process.
Any similarity to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is going to mislead you into expecting a whomping big show with a ton of slapstick. Helm's G-rated diversion is neither. Edward Magorium is a 243-year-old toy store proprietor, who has invented his share of dazzlements over the centuries. Nearing death, though looking as spry as usual, he hopes to hand the emporium over to the young manager, Molly Mahoney, a former keyboard prodigy who has foundered a bit in young adulthood. She describes herself as "stuck."
Magorium hires a buttoned-down accountant to do the books, and the accountant, in all his gray good sense and rationality, cannot see the store for the wonders it contains. The fourth major character is the youngest of screenwriter Helm's loners, Eric, who adores the emporium and who tries to make friends with the accountant. The store meantime is very upset with Magorium for choosing to move on, and for a while it looks as though the emporium will be sold to outsiders. The store is hacked off about that and the walls turn ooky-bubbly-gray, and eventually all color drains from the locale and from every single toy and gewgaw and trademarked brand name on the shelf. Only the magic of one young woman's selfhood can restore the bloom to the store's cheeks.
See what I mean about the whimsy? It's amazing "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" works at all. The actors deserve a good deal of credit. Like many veteran performers of a certain physical stature (Henry Winkler, for one), Dustin Hoffman seems to be turning simultaneously into Ed Wynn and Edward Everett Horton, and it seems to be working out. Hoffman gives Magorium a slight lisp and a quality of perpetual optimism. While it's too bad Helm couldn't come up with funnier verbal bits than "I stayed up all night making turnip pudding and thinking," Hoffman responds intuitively to the bittersweet premise. He and Natalie Portman (Molly) enjoy each other's on-screen company, and it's infectious. And when the time comes for Magorium and Molly to part, the feelings are full and true.
Jason Bateman plays the accountant who needs some shaking-up, and he is effectively dour. The film is narrated by young Zach Mills, who plays Eric, and who fills us in on the strongman who lives in Magorium's basement, among other things. (Mills played Adrien Brody's young son in "Hollywoodland," and he's engaging here as well.) Helm does not oversell the antics or the pathos, and he appears to communicate well with actors. As a first-time director, well, not bad: He doesn't yet move the camera in any distinctive or idiosyncratic ways, but he doesn't crowd the performers. With "Magorium" it all comes down to whether you find the idea of playing duck-duck-goose with a real goose charming, or not. I find it charming.
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