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There are two Dustin Hoffmans. There’s serious Dustin Hoffman from movies like The Graduate, and then there’s wacky character Dustin Hoffman from movies like Rain Man, Hook, I Heart Huckabees, and now Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Call me crazy, but I’ve always preferred wacky character Dustin Hoffman, and I have a sneaking suspicion that he does too.
Hoffman has never looked like he’s having more fun than he does as the titular Mr. Magorium in his Wonder Emporium. Magorium is a magical person, an avid shoe wearer, and the owner of a magical toy store. He started out making toys for Napoleon and about one hundred years ago he opened his Emporium in downtown New York. He’s assisted by his non-magical store manager Molly Mahoney played by cuter than ever, short-haircut Natalie Portman, and an awkward young boy named Eric (Zach Mills).
This is not however, a movie about a magical toy store. The trailers make it seem like a slinky-sized knockoff of Willy Wonka, but writer/director Zach Helm’s script actually skips most of the cliché ogling of mysterious computer-generated wonderments and instead veers off in a different direction. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium ends up serving as nothing more than a backdrop for a rather heartwarming and engaging examination of life, death, and dealing with loss.
We walk into Mr. Magorium’s store a few days before, unbeknownst to his adoring staff, he plans to leave. By leave I don’t mean take a lunch break or even retire. Mr. Magorium is planning to die, and the movie, while it handles the subject delicately, doesn’t dance around that. The film itself is not about the store, but about how Magorium’s friends, his extended family of Molly and Eric, will handle his imminent departure. At first, they don’t handle it well.
Magorium hires an accountant, whom he mistakes for a Mutant (Jason Bateman), to determine the value of his assets. Since he’s leaving he plans to pass everything on to Molly, and figures he ought to find out what it’s worth. Meanwhile Molly is preoccupied with the concerto she’s been failing to write, and takes awhile to catch on to exactly what’s going on with Magorium. Both Molly and Eric are given beautiful little sub plots about troubles in both their lives. Molly was a musical prodigy as a child, but as an adult she’s never been able to live up to her musical potential, and so she’s still working (albeit happily), for the lovable Mr. Magorium. Eric, is an awkward kid who can’t seem to make friends his own age, and so hides out in Magorium’s store with much to old for him Molly, the only person he’s able to be friends with.
The characters carry the film. Hoffman is fantastic as Magorium; wry, silly, and wise all at once, it’s impossible to watch without wanting to give him a tremendous hug. The film’s best moments come when Portman, Mills, and Bateman interact with Magorium. The film’s filled with beautiful character sequences, and has a real knack for doing the unexpected with them. It’s wonderfully engaging… to a point. Then the movie hits a speed bump.
Magorium falls apart in the final act, when it can’t seem to figure out how to end, and so the film’s finale ends up being rushed. The movie breezes past at barely an hour and a half, and when it’s over the film stops without finishing a lot of the stories it started. The subplots involving Molly and Eric’s troubles are simply dropped, and none of the real, soul searching issues the movie raises are ever addressed. Instead, Magorium’s Wonder Emporium gives up and dives into the sparkly, CGI, magical sprinkles it’s avoided for most of it’s running time as a way of simply getting the credits to roll.
Even with it’s fatally flawed ending, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is worth seeing for all the wonderful moments leading up to it, and for a delightfully engaging character performance from Dustin Hoffman. I wish the film had the temerity to really plumb the depths of some of the things touched on in its script, but I think it does enough to work out as a thoughtful, charming, and occasionally bittersweet experience. Or rather it does as long as you don’t have a problem with Dustin Hoffman doing funny voices.