Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


‘Wonder Emporium’ musters little joy, amazement

If Willy Wonka had devoted his life to toy store management
instead of becoming a chocolatier, the result would have been something like "Mr.
Magorium's Wonder Emporium." Writer and first-time director Zach Helm (writer,
"Stranger than Fiction") has created a film with glimmers of the kooky genius
that made Ronald Dahl's story so beloved. But the film delivers only brief fits
of genuine originality or sincerity, and leaves little for audiences other than
small children and myopic grandmothers who might accompany them.

"Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is a magical toy store
owned and managed by the 234-year-old and sometimes uncomfortably eccentric Mr.
Magorium (Dustin Hoffman, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer"), whose lisp is
far more unbearable than many of his lame jokes. As Magorium decides he is
prepared to "part from the world," he opts to bequeath his store to the
unconfident Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman, "V for Vendetta") and to hire an
accountant (Jason Bateman, "The Kingdom"), usually referred to as "the Mutant,"
to take care of the paperwork that Magorium himself had never bothered to look
at over the past centuries.

From the very beginning we see that the emporium itself — as
quintessential to this film as Willy Wonka's chocolate factory was to his movie
— lacks the artistic direction that should have made it a vibrant additional
character. Many times it seems as though we are inside FAO Schwarz, but on
acid. The store is not completely without personality; it physically reacts to
Magorium's departure by losing its color and magic, prompting a stern
disciplinary talk by Magorium. Still, the store feels like a space chockfull of
gee-whiz background events and bad CGI more than a human creation.

The set piece is not entirely lackluster, however. More than
once at a screening did the entire audience laugh in unison at some toy-related
antic, though these outbursts dwindled as the film ran on. Especially
unforgettable within the store is a stuffed monkey who — though he only makes
brief appearances — becomes one of the film's strongest characters with his
ability to convey emotion in a way that is more touching and sincere than the
screenplay allows for the actors to muster, by simply reaching out to passers-by
and donning a look of utter dejection when nobody notices him.

The focus of the film is, for the most part, shifted away
from the store, and on to the changing characters of both Mr. Magorium and
Molly Mahoney, his heiress. Dustin Hoffman's trademark eccentricity, without a
clever script, is rather irritating, but Hoffman does have some genuine moments
and very quotable lines. Hoffman is at his best only when the script calls for
incidental jokes and quotes; when the camera pays him too much attention, his one-note
character gets old quickly. He has a brief monologue about King Lear's death
that is indeed sincere and intriguing, but probably not for the vast numbers of
children in the audience, who almost certainly don't want to hear about his
death in a breezy toy movie. In this way, Magorium's quirkiness becomes spotty
at best, as he frequently breaks character to spout off profound life revelations,
as when Portman tells him, "You need to live," and he responds with, "I already
have." Perhaps Magorium's character is meant more for the grandmothers that
might be accompanying their grandchildren to a family-friendly film, because I
don't think the kids have much appreciation for his need to pass on.

Natalie Portman, on the other hand, is there for the kids,
even though she seems listless and dreaming of bigger things. Portman is
especially skilled in dramatic roles, but the emotional intensity of this film —
about fearing death and believing in oneself — is watered down to cater to the
kids. The effect is that, while kids can probably relate to her appreciation of
wonder and feelings of inadequacy, she becomes a little too childish herself.


"Magorium" is the sort of story that sounds fascinating on
paper, but directing films about magical places and things actually takes a
degree of finesse that few directors have. Even Tim Burton struggles with
balancing humor, magic and sincerity in his own version of "Charlie and the
Chocolate Factory." "Magorium," then, could probably have served its purpose
better as a fantastic children's book, and nothing more.

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