Were it not for an altogether too rushed, abrupt and not completely satisfying ending, Zach Helm’s Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium might well have found its way onto my best of the year list. Even as it stands, it’s a film of sufficient charm and largeness of heart that I don’t hesitate to recommend it.
The film marks the directorial debut of Zach Helm, who wrote the screenplay for last year’s Stranger Than Fiction, and while Magorium is not in the same league as that film, it shares the same themes and concerns. In fact, there’s not a lot of difference between Will Ferrell’s uptight IRS agent in Fiction and Jason Bateman’s uptight accountant here—nor in the way that each learns how to be human in the course of the fantastic events of the story. Magorium isn’t as heavy, nor do its perceptions run as deep, but then this was obviously never the intention. Think of it as Stranger Than Fiction for kids.
Everything about the film is playful—from its opening credits (“Supposedly a film by Zach Helm”) to its closing credits (where every character, no matter how minor, has both a name and a description)—and nothing about it is even remotely mean-spirited. The story is told from the point of view of Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills, Hollywoodland), an awkward kid who collects hats and is unable to connect with anyone his own age. Eric spends his free time hanging out at the titular store, which is easy to understand since the toys here are truly magical (even the mass-produced ones) and everything is fantastic in the best sense of the word.
But Eric doesn’t set out to tell his story, nor even the story of Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), the 243-year-old owner of the wonder emporium in question. No, he’s telling the story of Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a former piano prodigy and fledgling composer, who helps manage the emporium. Molly is at an impasse in her life—her efforts at composing are going nowhere and she feels at a dead end with the store. All that is about to change, however, since unbeknownst to her, Mr. Magorium has decided that it’s time to move on (by which he means it’s time for him to die) and he plans on passing the store—and its magic—on to Molly.
With this in mind, Magorium calls in an accountant (convinced that the word is combination of “count” and “mutant”) to set his business affairs to rights. What he gets is Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), an utterly humorless bean counter who is blind to the wonders of the emporium—and even to the quirkiness of its owner. Henry merely overlooks the fact that Magorium and Molly both address him as “Mutant,” that Magorium’s idea of accounting is a little out of date (“I see you brought your abacus with you”), and is always looking the other way whenever anything magical happens. Henry simply wanders through a world of enchantment and is completely oblivious to it all. The message isn’t terribly original or subtle, but it’s so well handled that you’re not apt to mind. It helps that the three stars have good chemistry with each other and with young Zach Mills. In fact without that chemistry, the film wouldn’t work at all. The viewer has to like the characters and care about them—something Helm and company pull off with seeming effortlessness.
The offhand acceptance of the magic in the film is what makes it work—not the more elaborate effects, which are little more than window-dressing. The big effects take a back seat to little touches like the sock monkey that wants to be Henry’s friend and the Slinky that’s afraid to walk down to steps. At almost every turn, simple charm and human interaction outweigh any sense of spectacle. The film is always at pains to merely accept the fantastic without explaining it (no one ever questions Magorium’s pet zebra, for example)—something that works in its favor until the movie reaches its climax. At that point, Helm has set up too many unanswered questions—can Eric make friends with anyone his own age, can Molly break through her bout of “composer’s block,” has Eric’s mother (TV actress Rebecca Northan) stopped being suspicious of Henry’s friendship with her son?—which remain unanswered.
Moreover, the admittedly splashy last scene is too rushed and unsatisfying, making the movie seem more like it just stops than properly ends. None of this ruins Magorium, but it keeps it from edging into the kind of greatness that it’s so very close to having that it feels like a tragically missed opportunity. It’s still a movie very worth seeing—maybe even worth treasuring—but it could have been so much more. Rated G.