Honest, genuine wonder — the kind that makes us gasp at fireworks or feel a flutter in our bellies at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony — has been in short supply lately at the movies, especially at kid flicks. Between the fart jokes, the pop-culture references, and the product placement, there’s little room for awe. And in a filmmaking climate where computers can create anything from giant fighting robots to armies of orcs, audiences have become so jaded about seeing the impossible that the thought of gasping at anything on-screen seems somehow corny and old-hat.
All of which is to say that “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” represents some kind of miracle. The trailers make the movie look like the ickiest kind of whimsy, accompanied by obstreperous special effects, but the film itself is gasp-worthy. And who would think that a movie about the sheer joy and magic of life — and how we need to keep believing in it — could also be a moving and life-affirming story about death? For kids, even?
Dustin Hoffman stars as Mr. Magorium, the 243-year-old owner of the titular establishment, the kind of place where kids can play Duck Duck Goose with a real goose or build a life-size Abraham Lincoln out of Lincoln Logs.
Like Maude in “Harold and Maude,” Mr. Magorium has decided that he has lived a full life and that it’s time for him to depart. He wants to bequeath the store to his manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a blocked composer and pianist who’s not sure that she has the magic necessary to keep this uniquely nutty store in business after the boss is gone. In order to get his affairs in order, Magorium hires account Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), whom everyone calls “Mutant,” since Magorium assumes the word “accountant” means a mixture of “counter” and “mutant.”
Mahoney does everything she can to try to keep Magorium alive, from taking him to a hospital (where everything is yellow and white) to reminding him of the pleasures of mattress-jumping and dancing on bubble wrap, but he insists that it’s his time to go — Hoffman gives a speech about death that’s one of the most moving things he’s ever done on-screen. Her unwillingness to take over the emporium makes the store itself “act out” — first the toys go crazy, then they all turn gray and black — but Henry and the store’s nine-year-old employee Eric (Zach Mills) hope to convince her to believe in her abilities and to bring the Emporium back to life.
First-time director Zach Helm previously wrote the acclaimed screenplay for “Stranger than Fiction,” and there’s some odd overlap between the two films. Both movies feature stuffy accountants who learn to love life after falling for creative gamines, and both are about men facing impending death — but whereas Will Ferrell’s drab number-cruncher in “Fiction” saw his imminent doom as the impetus to start living, Mr. Magorium knows that he has already lived his life to the fullest.
Everything clicks together here, from the performances (even young Mills is refreshingly uncloying) to the dazzling visuals to the sprightly score by Alexandre Desplat and Aaron Zigman. Heck, even the opening and closing credits are charming and fun to watch. “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” is the kind of movie kids and parents could enjoy again and again, if only to catch the little details, like when a shooting star flies through the glow-in-the-dark stick-on stars in the hospital room. It made me gasp.