Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman starring in a movie made by the guy who wrote Stranger than Fiction certainly sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, the execution doesn't live up to the pedigree.
When you title a movie Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, you have basically made a contract with your audience. There should be magic, amazement, surprise, astonishment; in short, a little wonder. Writer/director Zach Helm puts a kooky title out there and has some kooky characters and sets, but doesn’t really come through on the wonder.
Dustin Hoffman, under some scary eyebrows, plays the titular Mr. Magorium. He’s a 243 year-old magical toy shop owner who decides it’s finally time for him to “leave.” His shop is alive and the toys (a combination of CGI and puppetry) share the joy of the kids who enter the doors everyday and Magorium himself. His decision to die and pass the shop on to his one employee, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), sends the toy shop into a temper tantrum. The walls turn gray and the toys and books fire off in all directions. Mahoney herself is also angry that Magorium will be leaving and she worries the toy store will be forced to close without Magorium’s magical presence and Cindy Brady-ish lisp.
Handling the news better is Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), a nine-year old boy who hangs out at the shop in lieu of having any friends. Encouraged by his mom to try to make some friends, he latches onto Henry (Jason Bateman), an accountant hired by Magorium to value his store before he passes it on to Molly. Eric and Henry help Molly realize that the ending of Magorium’s story is really the beginning of her story as a magic maker. Or something like that.
The plot, such as it is, is pretty flat. It’s clear from the beginning that Henry is not a bad guy, just someone who has forgotten his innocent childlike qualities. He can’t see the magic of the store, so he’s a bit stiff. Molly can see it but thinks it all comes from Magorium, so she’s a bit stiff. In fact, you wonder how she could have worked in a magic toy store for so long and not “get it.” Eric isn’t stiff but he’s also playing one of those wise beyond his years kids and it doesn’t really work, despite Mills’ engaging face and personality. Anytime the movie focuses on these three, it is fairly boring for the kids in the audience and pretty predictable for the adults.
When Hoffman is on-screen as Magorium, the film peps up a bit, at least for kids. The toy story scenes are cute and it’s a kids dream come true. Adults will likely find Hoffman’s lisp annoying and some of the jokes stale. There is a running gag about how you get a different number of hot dog buns and hot dogs in the store packages. That sort of joke seemed old when Steve Martin did it in Father of the Bride in 1991. There is also a scene where Magorium and Molly show they are still young at heart by jumping up and down on beds in a furniture store. Stuff like that will amuse the kiddies, but cause their parents to do a few eye rolls.
Helm seems to think that just giving his title character a pet zebra will draw you into the world he is trying to create. It doesn’t quite work. While the movie is inoffensive and has enough interesting visuals and jokes to please the pre-teen set, it doesn’t stand up to forebearers like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland. It’s more in line with The Last Mimzy. That’s damning with very faint praise.
The DVD tries to keep up the “if we give it a magical title it will make up for some boring product” strategy. The extras are meager, although not bare bones. There is no commentary track. There should always be at least one and movies like this, with little critical support and moderate box office success, should do whatever they can to bring eyeballs to their movie. Grab the production designer and let them go nuts talking about the little things we probably wouldn’t notice.
All of the extras fall into the behind-the-scenes featurettes category. They total about 30 minutes all together. The first is called “Strangely Weird and Weirdly Strange: The Magical World of a Wonder Emporium." This seven minute feature is broken into four parts and includes the diverse subjects of writer/director Zach Helm, the sock monkey puppet seen in the toy store, the live zebra that lives in Magorium’s home above the store, and the replica of Abraham Lincoln built from Lincoln Logs by Eric. It feels pretty random, but a kid might be interested in seeing the real zebra and how the puppets work.
There are two featurettes dealing with three of the main characters and actors (Bateman’s Henry is left out.) Oddly, Hoffman and Portman are lumped together in the seven minute "An Eccentric Boss and an Awkward Apprentice," while Zach Mills is given the same amount of time himself for "To Meet Eric Applebaum, Start By Saying Hi." Both are in the same format of the actors and others talking about the character and then having the cast and crew talk about the actor and how great he or she is. The only reason to give Mills as much time as Hoffman and Portman combined is that this is a movie primarily for kids who may want to know more about him rather than the older actors they might not care about.
The most interesting extra is an eight minute featurette called "The Magical Toy Store." This covers the toy store set (where most of the movie takes place) and all the toy props. It is fun to go a little more in-depth with the different toys and books and how the set was created. The final two-minute items, called “Fun on the Set,” shows cast members laughing and acting goofy on the set. It’s not a gag reel with flubs, just things like Jason Bateman sticking his gum on a camera and Natalie Portman watching something and laughing at it. This segment is not very entertaining, but it’s not long either.
That’s it for the extras. This is a very visual movie and the DVD gives a very good picture. There is nothing special about the picture quality, but it’s certainly up to the usual standard. More extras, a commentary, and perhaps a few interesting games would have made this a more attractive DVD for families who enjoyed the rather bland movie. Instead, the disc fits the movie perfectly, neither are particularly memorable.