November 26, 2007

Kooky Name, Lousy Movie

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Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is not the worst movie you will ever see. There’s some good acting, a bit of humor, and some cool visuals and Natalie Portman. But if you’re into plot, character development, or entertainment value, you may be disappointed. There’s not much to guess at after the first ten minutes, and most of the film is filled with empty and predictable emotional epiphanies. Toys and magic are cool—everyone knows that—but they do not a movie make. With a bit more story and another conflict or two, this film could have been good. Instead, it’s flat and mediocre.
Mr. Magorium, played by Dustin Hoffman, has been making toys since the 1770s. However, it’s time for the old tinkerer to depart, and he decides to leave his magical toy store, the Wonder Emporium, to his apprentice, Mahoney (Natalie Portman). Now, Mahoney has issues of her own—a former child prodigy at the piano, she wallows in self-doubt while trying to finish her first concerto. Then there’s an accountant, played by Jason Bateman (of Arrested Development fame), who is brought in to sort out the store’s disorganized financial records and winds up falling for Mahoney. He basically stands for adulthood and sobriety in all its anti-magical dullness. There’s a kid, too, Eric (Zach Mills), who is apparently supposed to be the protagonist, but he doesn’t do much more than wear funny hats and fail at making friends.
The problem with this story is that this is about as far as it goes. There’s no change— it’s stagnant. Mr. Magorium has to convince Mahoney that she has the magic to run the store, and that’s about the only obstacle they have to overcome. There’s really no suspense. For a while, the toy store loses its magic—paper airplanes no longer fly of their own accord, and the Door of Rooms leads simply to a house. What is Mahoney going to do? Can she summon the faith to believe in herself? Well, apparently all it takes is a block of wood. That’s what Mr. Mag bequeaths to Mahoney (what kind of name is that for a hottie, anyway?), who tries in vain for most of the movie to get the wood to do something. Finally, when she’s about to sell the store to a female version of Donald Trump, she gets the thing to hop around and spin in the air. Before you know it, the store’s reverted back to form and there are sparkles and giggles.
The movie essentially turns around this opposition of laughter and magic versus rationality and responsibility. In that sense, it’s quite charming. Bateman does a good job of playing the boring suit, called “mutant” by the good guys (something about mispronouncing the word accountant?). His dour demeanor is a sharp contrast to the exuberance of Mr. Magorium, who chuckles and chortles with the children as they play with his toys. It may be escapism, but it’s awesome. Who wouldn’t want to jump around in the mattress store or dance on bubble wrap in the park, as the Mag does on his last day on Earth? You can count me in. And I’m also down for fingerpainting, as long as it’s with Mahoney (although she does have a weirdly boyish look to her—oh well). It’s basically a stand-off between those who hang on to their innocence and those who Mahoney calls the “‘just’ guys”—people who think the Emporium is “just” a toy store, or that magic is “just” pretend. Although pretty shallow, this little lesson of the movie is inspiring—it’s the basic philosophy behind all lighthearted kid’s films, from Peter Pan to Shrek. Again, escapism, and again, I like.
But what about Mr. Magorium? He talks with a pretty annoying pseudo-lisp (raising questions in this age of post-Dumbledore sexual politics), and his smiling optimism is a bit much. But he’s wise and he’s caring. His mentoring of Mahoney is a high point of the film, as he inspires her to believe, telling her, “Your life is an occasion. Rise to it.” But his character is undeveloped like so much else in this movie, and you start to get the feeling that the film was written by people who don’t know the meaning of the word “cliché.” I do know what that word means and I’m not amused. Even four-year-olds expect more than just the idea of magic and fun: there’s got to be a story. I hold Home Alone to be the paradigmatic kid’s movie, and it’s awesome because you can’t wait to see what happens. Mr. Magorium is the opposite in so many ways—no suspense, no unique ideas (like scalding Joe Pesci’s dome), and no Christmasness (what were they thinking, releasing a movie about toys at this time of year?) There’s charm, and lots of it, but there’s little else. I’m gonna play the mutant on this one, and declare that this movie “just” sucks.