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  • U
  • Comedy, Family
  • 2007
  • 94 mins

Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Synopsis

Zach Helm directs this fantasia of faith and mortality, set in a magical toy store. Dustin Hoffman stars

About

At the beginning of Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium, as one-time musical prodigy turned toystore manager Molly Mahoney (Portman) opens the shop for the day, she finds nine-year-old Eric (Mills) on the pavement outside trying to reach up to where the wind has lodged his hat - on a sign seven feet above the ground. To her offer of a ladder, Eric replies, "Nah, I just need to jump higher." Minutes later, through a window in the background, we see Eric making an impossible leap into the air.

The Wonder Emporium is, after all, a place where the impossible happens regularly- where sea-themed mobiles are made of real fish, where Kermit the Frog can be seen shopping amongst the other customers, where toys and books come to life, where zebras and lemurs move about freely, where there is a room-shifting dial lifted right out of Howl's Moving Castle (2004) - and where the very building itself warps and changes according to its mood.

Presiding over this extraordinary toyshop is Mr Edward Magorium (Hoffman), a 243-year-old big kid with an infectious sense of faith, love and anarchy - but now that he is down to the very last pair of his favourite Italian shoes, he has decided it is time for him to move on to a new adventure beyond this world, and has called in anal, over-literal accountant Henry Weston (Bateman) - affectionately dubbed 'the Mutant' - to value the property before Mahoney takes over the reins.

Mahoney is none too happy when she finds out that her beloved mentor is going, but that is as nothing compared to the sulky reaction of the shop itself, whose walls and toys start to lose their colour and their magic. And so it is left to shy Eric, sceptical Henry and unconfident Mahoney, armed only with a wooden cube of uncertain purpose, to live up to the imaginative potential that Magorium saw in them, and to begin the next chapter in the store's chronicles.

It would be possible to approach Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium like an accountant, reducing it to a checklist of assets and liabilities. One might, for example, praise the quality of its special effects, while at the same time carping about the lack of 'real' substance to its flimsy story, or the two-dimensionality of its four principal characters. All this, however, is to be blind to the film's magical properties, which are far less easy to quantify.

There is the way in which the visual trickery (rendered mostly through physical effects and puppetry) is understated and pushed into the background, so that it forms part of the film's texture rather than just providing the odd moment of spectacle. Or the way that the Slinkies, Radio Flyer wagons, balsawood dinosaurs and sock monkeys always seem like real toys, even when they are animated. Or the way that the laws of physics are broken so often that you start no longer to think it strange, or even to notice.

Writer-director Zach Helm has pulled off no less than a miracle, conjuring from the air an original story that feels as familiar as an ancient, well-thumbed children's book. This is an hour-and-a-half of joyous awe so intoxicating that you only notice when it is all over the complete absence of those usual mainstays of narrative, conflict and violence. Nor, for that matter, is there any gross-out humour, or the sort of racy innuendo that parents hate having to explain away to their puzzled children afterwards. This is a family film that unashamedly directs itself at younger viewers, while reminding us that even someone closer to Magorium's age can remain young at heart.

Concerned as much with human mortality as with the immortal legacy of the imagination, Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium sets up shop somewhere between the spirits of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (2005) and Bridge To Terabithia (2007). Most of all, however, with its vibrant colours, quirky characters and slightly old-fashioned aesthetics, Helm's feature debut is like a young person's Wes Anderson film - before the melancholy has yet had time to set properly in.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Rebecca Northan, Kiele Sanchez, Mike Realba, Zach Mills, Ted Ludzik, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Bateman, Natalie Portman
  • Director: Zach Helm
  • Writer: Zach Helm
  • Producer: James Garavente, Richard N Gladstein
  • Photographer: Roman Osin
  • Composer: Alexandre Desplat, Aaron Zigman

In a nutshell

This children's tale of magical whimsy miraculously avoids even toying with violence - while confronting the finality of death head-on.

by Anton Bitel

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