Step right up, ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, to one of the few G-rated films released in 2007, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Twice the magical effects of the Harry Potter movies, with only a fraction of the depth! See the freakiest hair outside of a John Waters movie! Hear the strangest speech impediment from Dustin Hoffman to date! Marvel at the see-through storyline! You'll certainly be looking for the egress during this attraction.
I fear I'm not being fair, kicking Mr. Magorium like that. As a movie for small children whose film viewing experience is limited, it's not bad at all, especially when you start comparing it to product-oriented kids' entertainment. The problem is that I expected something more appealing to grownups from a movie with Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman. I thought writer-director Zach Helm might deliver another movie with the occasionally clever humor of Stranger Than Fiction, which he also scripted.
Mr. Magorium is about a magical (really magical) toy store owned by the 243-year-old title character (Hoffman), where Molly Mahoney (Portman) works as a clerk. She wants to be a great pianist and composer, and she feels she has to grow in some way, perhaps giving up playing with children's toys all day long. Mr. Magorium has other ideas -- he brings in a stuffy accountant, Henry aka The Mutant (Bateman), to get the store's financial affairs in order so Magorium can bequeath the store to Mahoney.
The cast also includes nine-year-old Eric (Zach Mills), who visits the store every day because he doesn't have any friends ... and who provides a voiceover even more unnecessary than the one in Blade Runner. Perhaps if you're six, you need a narrator to explain everything visible onscreen in the first 10 minutes, and to read aloud the "chapter title" of every section of the movie read aloud (it's divided into chapters, as though this were a book come to life). The persistent narration at the beginning made me want to strangle the kid before I even saw him onscreen. It reflects the difficulty I had with the movie as a whole -- the few plot elements and messages are beaten into your skull repeatedly, with little suspense, complexity or emotional depth.
I loved Hoffman so much in Stranger Than Fiction, despite other flaws in the film. Here, his assumed accent is a grating combination of his old Rain Man character, actor Jack Gilford, and Anthony Hopkins in The Road to Wellville. Even as a child, I was uncomfortable with grown-up actors who felt the need to be aggressively whimsical in a children's movie (sorry, but I'm thinking of Gene Wilder here). I would have liked Magorium twice as much if Hoffman looked and sounded more like his usual self, although I did enjoy seeing the Tom Wolfe-like suits. Everyone is trying way too hard to be in-your-face quirky -- compare these roles to Maggie Smith in the Harry Potter series, who acts in as straightforward a way as she would anything else, instead of donning scary eyebrows and weird speech patterns. Bateman acts less quirky than the rest, which is probably why I sympathized with The Mutant at first even though he's set up as the bad guy.
Poor Natalie Portman is amazingly sexless and unappealing, as though any hint of desirability would up the rating of the film. It's simply wrong, and I speak as a short-haired woman who normally likes seeing a nice pixie cut onscreen. My guess is that she's meant to look like Peter Pan, a la Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan: a girl camouflaged as the boy who never grew up. See, Mahoney hasn't really grown up either ... get it? That's about as nuanced a level of symbolism as you'll find in this film. The music is equally unsubtle, and it was especially freaky to hear Cat Stevens' "Don't Be Shy" in a scene where Eric is trying to make friends, when I'd heard the same song over a similar scene in Martian Child a few weeks before.
Again, I have to stress that I watched this film as a grown-up who's seen plenty of movies and who doesn't have children herself. On the other hand, I like intelligently crafted children's books and movies, and one of my favorite films of 2007 is probably Ratatouille. While many of the kids at the screening seemed to enjoy the movie, I wish it had offered more for parents and other adult filmgoers. One warning for parents: I think if I were bringing kids to this movie, I'd want to be prepared to explain afterwards that in real life, people don't normally choose the exact date and time when they intend to die.
Mr. Magorium has some wonderfully whimsical and delightful moments: a glimpse of Kermit the Frog walking down an aisle doing his shopping; a sock monkey come to life that just wants a little cuddle; a fish mobile made of live, wriggling fish. The special effects are often used in striking ways, and the opening credits are awfully cute (Rolie Polie Olie artist William Joyce was part of the credits design team). But for the most part, I didn't find a childlike sense of wonder or delight in watching Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, but a childish restlessness.