Whimsy is not portioned out cordially in "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," it's shot out of a cannon. A spirited family film with marvelous ambitions, this "Emporium" is reserved only for those with the capability to embrace deafening big screen magic.
As the 243-year-old owner of a magical toy shop, Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is looking not only to retire, but to leave existence as we know it. His preferred heir is employee Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a young piano prodigy with a bad case of creative blockage. Fearful of a future without Magorium's leadership and symbiosis with the land of childlike marvel, she panics, relying on the comfort of Henry (Jason Bateman), an accountant struggling with disbelief.
With "Stranger than Fiction," writer Zach Helm found a niche in the business as the poor man's Charlie Kaufman. "Magorium" is Helm's first feature film directing gig; it's a pleasant departure from the rusted mechanics of "Fiction," but Helm still has questionable control of his fanciful nature. At the very least, "Magorium" is a children's film aimed directly at the fantasies and appreciation of the average nose-picker, and is not looking to noogie the faux intellect of the dinner-and-movie crowd with grandstanding professions of quirk.
Childlike pleasure is a major commodity of this film, as Helm turns on a fire hose of visual delights. The Emporium of the title is a stunning toy shop with anthropomorphized everything, from stuffed animals to the store itself, not to mention a menagerie of science experiments, books with adventure literally springing from the pages, and a special room that switches from displays of train sets and rubber balls to an apartment with a turn of the dial. It's an enchanting place that gushes with a great sense of cinematic invention.
Helm demonstrates a nice touch with special effects and how they interact with his cast, but the pedal is grinding the metal during much of the film. I'm sure the intentions are genuine, but the visualization of the shop is can be grating at times, layering the bouncy score and colorful sights on thick. Helm insists this is how to best sell the Emporium and its pint-sized appeal, but it has the effect of an IMAXed "Pokémon" episode, diluting the overall intention of wide-eyed amazement.
Also fondling the edge of annoyance is Hoffman's performance as the puzzling Magorium. With Christopher Walken hair and a calming lisp, Hoffman is reaching for that crucial tint to his performance which communicates magical aloofness and wizened contentment. It's a series of unique performance choices from Hoffman, and he interacts well with a stiff Portman (who looks terrified of the special effects), but the character grows exhausting the more Helm keeps Magorium in the movie, locking the film in a tiring cycle of spoon-fed fancy instead of moving the story forward.
The force of innocence is a convincing one in "Mr. Magorium," and I find it hard to hate any film that includes a cameo from America's most iconic frog (bless you, Mr. Helm). Older viewers might want to prepare for a frontal sensorial assault, but kids, the intended target demo, will most certainly eat up this picture like candy.
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