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Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

He’s no Willy Wonka

In only his second produced screenplay, after last year’s well-received Stranger Than Fiction, Zach Helm’s has already turned to directing with Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, a G-rated film he also scripted. The movie is a family-oriented fantasy along the lines of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but lacking its dark, twisted humor or clever wordplay. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is too safe, too bland, and too innocuous for its good, offering visual gloss and the occasionally inventive idea to captivate small children, but not much else for anyone over ten, except an overdose of wistful whimsy and saccharine sentimentality.

Nestled between two commercial buildings on a busy street sits Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, a magical, fantastical toyshop unlike any other, where kids can look, touch, run wild, and not have to purchase anything. True to its name, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is owned and operated by the eccentric Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman). Mr. Magorium claims to be 243 years old, something others seem to assume is just a harmless delusion. The emporium’s manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a classically trained pianist, struggles between her love for the emporium and Mr. Magorium and her desire to become a full-fledged composer. Naturally, her insecurities and doubts about herself and her abilities stand in the way of achieving her goals.

The emporium is also the second home to Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), a lonely nine-year old. Eric seems incapable of making friends his own age, but makes due with Mr. Magorium and Molly. Everything changes when Mr. Magorium announces that he’s “departing” for parts unknown and giving title to the emporium to Molly. She’s not sure she wants it and even if she does, she’s unsure whether she has Mr. Magorium’s magic touch. Mr. Magorium hires an uptight accountant, Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), to comb through decades worth of messy records and receipts to help with the transition.

To give moviegoers the sense that they’re watching a modern-day fairytale, Helm divides Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium into chapters, each one read off by Eric. Leaving aside how much he does or doesn’t know, based on his age or his actual involvement in the film’s events, the chapters and Eric’s sporadic narration add little. Heavy with puns, most of them awkward even by the standards of a ten-year old, the chapter breaks don’t add much.

In fact, they’re just one example among many where Helm went wrong in trying to conjure up a modern-day fairytale. Re-using the uptight accountant character like he did for Stranger Than Fiction is another, as is an underwritten part for Natalie Portman that doesn’t even bother addressing why she seemingly has no friends or family outside of Mr. Magorium or Eric.

However, the most egregious error Helm commits was in allowing Hoffman deliver his lines with a lisp, walk with a Rainman-like hitch to his step, and giving his character wince-inducing idiosyncrasies (e.g. he lives with a zebra, he’s absent minded, sleeps upside down, models his hair style after Einstein, and wears the same shoes until they wear out, etc.).

Any way you break it down, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a disappointment. It's shot through with whimsy from the first frame to the last, and it's undermined by an overly sentimental message about believing in oneself and believing in a benevolent unseen world. Adults will probably find all the sugarcoated whimsy too much to sit through. Only the ten and younger set won't be too jaded to enjoy Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Ratng: 2.5 out of 5 stars