Sunday, March 9, 2008

MR. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. We get the wonder...now where's the story? Out now. (***3/10)

I like Dustin Hoffman. We all do. Dustin Hoffman is likeable, and one of the greatest actors of the past 50 years. However, late in his career he has had some trouble choosing good movies. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is one of them. Visually, this movie is very impressive. Hoffman plays Mr. Magorium, the proprietor of a magical toy store where kids congregate every day to experience wonder. And there certainly is wonder aplenty in the ol' Emporium. Dinosaur skeletons that play fetch with frisbees, slinkies that are too nervous to come off the table, magical balls that never stop bouncing, and dozens of other really neat toys. The store itself appears to be alive, some kind of entity unto itself, and it is a very impressive beginning to the movie. But then, when the movie needs to rely on characters and a plot to move things forward, it stalls. In fact, it pretty much comes to a dead stop.

It isn't Hoffman's fault. He is obviously having a lot of fun playing the titular character, and he enjoys himself thoroughly in a role that's more reminiscent of watered-down Marx Brothers schtick than Willy Wonka. The dialogue in his scenes is delightfully inane and whimsical, and the kids loved it. It isn't Natalie Portman's fault either - she is perfectly cast as the girl who works at the counter of the store, who has magic in her heart...and Zach Mills is terrific as a young boy named Eric, who appears to be some kind of child genius with no friends, who serves on the de facto board of governors for the Emporium. Mills is a great surprise. His face is so expressive, and he handles his adult lines with great dexterity and real charm. But all of this fills up ten minutes of screen time. Then Jason Bateman shows up. He is stiff as a board and very unconvincing as an accountant brought into the store to put the store's papers in order. This leads to a few great scenes with Hoffman, but it also leads to that most-obnoxious of movie questions - will he learn to loosen up and take life less seriously? All that would take would be one game of checkers...

And therein lies the biggest problem with Mr. Magorium. All it takes for Bateman to see the light and embrace the magic and lose the suit-attitude is to put on a hat with the kid. Natalie Portman yearns for something more than her job as a clerk in a toy store. An amazing toy store, to be sure, but she is still in retail when she dreams of being a concert pianist. And the prevailing thought here is that this sadness she feels can be resolved if she takes over the store from Magorium and becomes the owner. Umm...sure. So, she wants to be a concert pianist, and not work at the toy store any more, so the way to make her pleased with her life is to - tie her to that same store for the rest of her life? This is the sort of idea the movie is quite pleased to trot out at the right moment in the plot. None of it is cohesive, none of it rings true, and in the end the "wonder" of the story is dulled by the predictability of the characters and their actions. Even the kids, who just wanted to watch the cool toys do cool things, got pretty bored toward the end. I don't blame them. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium was done at the fifteen minute mark.

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