Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Dir. Zach Helm
Premiered November 15, 2007
I wasn’t going to review this originally. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium was mocked by critics. It lost an unconscionable amount of money.
But Minnie loves it. So I asked her to review it with me.
The titular Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is a dandy Ed Wynn-ish 243-year-old who operates a magical toy store in New York City. However, he is now dying– not for any specific reason; it’s just time to go– and intends to leave his store to Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), whose fear of pursuing her dream as a concert pianist has kept her in a state of arrested adolescence.
To this end, Magorium gives Mahoney a wooden box known only as the “Congreve Cube” in the hope that it will help her find the magic within. At the same time, he hires a seemingly humorless accountant named Henry Weston (Jason Bateman) to arrange his affairs, leading Henry into an unexpected friendship with nine-year-old loner Eric (Zach Mills).
Minnie: I love this movie. I love its vibrancy, its surprisingly age-appropriate commentary on death, its absurdity. I find the colorful madness of the movie to be so visually arresting that I find myself frequently overlooking its narrative missteps, and I find an incredible nostalgia in the childlike enthusiasm that is reflected by all of the characters, most conspicuously and unrealistically, the adult ones. Most of the reasons why people hate this movie are the reasons why I think its good. It’s busy, it’s childish, and, in all, it has a dubious relationship with reality.
Sam: I think that’s why I find it so frustrating. It goes in circles a lot, and I actually find the conclusion kind of horrifying in the same way as we both felt about Knocked Up. Mahoney has this dream and vision for her life, and the ultimate moral is that she doesn’t get to choose? The end of the movie is all about believing in yourself, but really it’s saying to believe in what other people think of you.
Minnie: I disagree. I think that there are dueling problems that Mahoney faces as a result of her not believing in herself. The first is her dream of being a pianist, and the second is her sadness that she cannot save the store she loves because she lacks the requisite magic. In the end of the movie, when she finds the magic in herself, I don’t think the implication was that she bent to peer pressure and abandoned her dreams for her friends, but rather that she found the confidence (or as they say with utmost disgustingness, her “Sparkle”) to pursue whatever dreams she has.
Sam: But she won’t be able to pursue those dreams, because now she’s going to run the store. I’m actually really surprised the movie went in that direction, as I felt the narrative was actually setting up Henry as this Mr. Banks-type who was going to rediscover his sense of fun and take over. Everyone wins!
This isn’t horrible, believe me. I’ve seen some bad movies on this project. But this movie makes some very odd choices. First, it has this framing device where the whole story is being told by the kid character Eric- or rather not. At the beginning of the movie, Eric narrates how he’s actually reading the story of Mr. Magorium’s life as written by his biographer Bellini (Ted Ludzik) who lives under the store. But Bellini doesn’t factor into the story at all; he doesn’t even have lines.
Minnie: I will not defend Eric’s narration, especially in announcing chapter titles that serve more as spoilers than actual markers, it is pretty awful. He isn’t a very good actor and his voice is not particularly interesting, and every time he starts to speak, I think to myself, “Oh Lordy, this again.”
Sam: The whole setup weirdly reminds me of the last movie Zach Helm worked on, Stranger Than Fiction.
Minnie: The real problem that arises in narrating this story like Stranger Than Fiction is that its main character was literally a character in the narrator’s book. In Mr. Magorium, there is no need for the book structure whatsoever. As you noted in multiple parts of the movie, it could have been taken out and nothing would have changed.
Sam: Stranger Than Fiction is one of my favorite movies, and it has some common elements with this film, but in a way that makes me wonder if Helm misunderstands his own strengths as a writer– granted, he’s not nearly as bad as Richard Kelly, but with Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium he definitely seems to display a similar one-size-fits-all approach to different stories.
How Did It Do?
Mr. Magorium grossed $69.5 million against a $65 million budget, all but squandering its marketing, and earned a 38% rating on RottenTomatoes. The film entered wide release on the same weekend as Enchanted, inviting a choir of dismissive comparisons by critics; Richard Roeper openly fantasized about Amy Adams’ Princess Giselle passing the titular emporium on her arrival in New York and dismissing it as cartoonish.
Even writer/director Zach Helm disowned the film, calling it a “technicolor trainwreck” in a 2013 interview. He refuses to watch it ever again, and has never directed a feature film since.
Next Time: The Golden Compass