November 22, 2007

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Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (G)
Dustin Hoffman is like the Willy Wonka of toys but without that sinister Wonka edge in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, a movie full of delight and bedazzlement and parents who have nothing else to take their kids to right now.

I know studios feel that it’s the PG-13 movie that is endlessly lucrative, but the occasional G movie would seem to be money in the bank. Whether the rest of this review is positive or negative, plenty of parents — given this film, Bee Movie and Enchanted to choose from in terms of kid-friendly films — will likely take their kids to this film during the Thanksgiving holiday and in the weeks after. (And then they’ll buy or rent the DVD.) And of those three movies, both Bee Movie and Enchanted are rated PG and Enchanted is pretty specifically a girl-centric movie, with its fairy princess protagonist. (There are other movies rated PG — August Rush, The Game Plan and Fred Claus — in theaters this week but those all involve lots of dialogue, which seems to bore kids under about eight or nine.) Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, as the only current G-rated film, will — good or bad — likely capture the family-with-kids-of-all-ages audience.

Mr. Magorium (Hoffman) runs a magical toy store full of bouncy balls with minds of their own, a living-fish mobile, a rocket ship and a giant book that can produce whatever a kid desires (as well as, when it’s angry, a lemur instead of a lollipop). Helping him rein in all of this madness is Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a pianist and composer who is stuck — both in her life and in the concerto she’s trying to write. To attempt to shake things loose, she tells Magorium that she’ll be wanting a new job soon. Magorium decides to give her the store — his rationalization being that “owner” will indeed be a new job. To help with the transfer, he hires an accountant — Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), who, because Magorium isn’t totally clear on what an accountant does (he guesses “a counting mutant”), he and soon all Empoirum-ites call Mutant.

Though not an official owner or employee, Eric (Zach Mills), a nine-year-old collector of hats who is considered a freak by his peers, uses the magic store as kind of a home base. Though he believes that Molly can run the store, Molly doesn’t, nor does she accept Magorium’s reason for giving it to her: after 200-plus years as a toy maker and “avid shoe-wearer” Magorium is “departing” (which, as the movie gently explains, means he will die).

Believe in yourself, find the magic in all things, everything eventually ends — these are the movie’s basic philosophies, and all of the storylines support them. Molly needs to find her inner magic to run the store and finish her concerto, Henry needs to loosen up and be more friendly and less accountant, Eric needs to find friends his own age and Magorium needs to die because it’s his time. (That last part is explained during the movie’s draggiest scenes, which include Magorium quoting and discussing King Lear.) These aren’t particularly shocking kid-story foundations — pretty much all Disney movies and the less snarky of the DreamWorks ones use some combination of these three themes.

The dialogue and acting here are equally adequate and unsurprising. Hoffman’s performance is strange — he’s sort of buck-toothed in a Dr.-Seuss-character kind of way — but not grating, nor (for the most part) is Portman’s one-note turn. Bateman is funny and pleasant in the same way his character in Arrested Development was funny and pleasant but without any of that show’s absurdity, black humor or bite. And, yes, the whole movie does look like a box of Play-Doh exploded in an FAO Schwartz but it doesn’t actually make you go blind or anything.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is not what I’d consider a rip-roaring family film but nor is it unwatchably twee (it gets close to the line but doesn’t go over it). The action and the funny seem to be decently paced for both kids and adults and the movie doesn’t dwell on the dialogue-heavy parts. If only by default, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium might be the best nobody-in-the-family-suffers-unduly film in theaters right now. C

Rated G. Written and directed by Zach Helm, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is an hour and 33 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Fox Walden.