In MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM we discover that neither bright and shiny sets nor silly socks a fun film makes. Sprung from the sadly underfevered imagination of Zach Helm (STRANGER THAN FICTION), this fable is like something imagined by Turgenev during what would have been even for him one of his more bleak interludes. The plot is as creaky as the quaint vintage structure in which the magic takes place. Helm, making his directorial debut, moves his story along with all the élan of a police procedural, and a particularly dry one at that.
The emporium in question is run by the eponymous Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), who is as guileless as he is vaguely irritating, what with being played as a cross between Raymond, the savant from RAIN MAN, and a perky cockatoo. Magorium readily admits to being 243-years-old, to having a genuine IOU from Thomas Edison, and to being ready to go, as in to the great hereafter, now that his lifetime supply of shoes has run out. This is why he has brought in Hank (Jason Bateman), an accountant, or as he is dubbed, Mutant. Magorium wants to get everything in order in order to leave the store to Mahoney (Natalie Portman), his perky 23-year-old store manager who would rather be finishing her first concerto than inheriting a store that will keep her from fulfilling her destiny as a former musical prodigy. There’s also Eric (Zach Mills), the store’s mascot and resident lonely weird kid, who can wear a lot of silly hats, build an actual Lincoln out of Lincoln Logs, but can’t make a friend his own age.
What should have been a delightful bit of whimsy is instead a turgid exercise in missing the point. Not even Mills, a doughty kid with the requisite big brown eyes and ears that stick out a bit, seems to be buying into the magical aspect of the story. Ditto Portman, who is lovely and who cries on cue, but doesn’t seem so much enchanted by Magorium as slightly on guard in case he turns out to be less harmless than he purports. It is, as is often the case, up to Bateman to save the day and though he tries mightily with killer timing and the right note of befuddlement, it’s too little to overcome the monumental problems here.
The plot hinges on Mr. Magorium deciding it’s time for him to go. He’s just ready. He’s not tired of life, as evidenced by his readiness to dance a jig on a sheet of bubble wrap; he not sick, as is proven by the trip to the hospital Mahoney insists on orchestrating; and he’s not running out of pixie dust or whatever it is that has kept him going since the 1700s. No it’s an arbitrary whim that doesn’t make his going so much poignant as slightly mean-spirited. As for leaving the store to Mahoney, who adores it even if she wants to get on with her life, making the store throw a temper-tantrum and then turn several shades of a most unappetizing gray to protest Magorium’s going hardly seems the best way to accomplish changing her mind. It does allow for some somber art direction, though, and the question is why that would work either.
Instead of even a hint of pizzazz, the action is flat. The small moments of genuine fun, bouncy balls that are continually trying to escape the store (who can blame them?), a Slinky that fears walking down steps, or the sock-monkey doll that has taken a fancy to Henry, throw the larger failings into greater relief. Even Bateman flails when reduced to wearing a silly hat and spouting a silly story for Eric’s amusement.
MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM is as silly as its title, and not in a good way. Pretentious when it’s not insipid, dull when it’s not desperate, it’s enough to make that Slinky want to retreat all the way back into its box, and the audience, too.