You are about to watch an ancient tradition of the film critic brotherhood. Please keep your children from sticking in their fingers. Keep in mind that we are trained, certified professionals. But come and marvel at the ancient art of … giving a movie a pass.
If there’s any film that should be grateful, it would be Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Let’s face it, the movie comes glowing with a fluorescent bull’s eye. Start with the name, which sounds like a rejected Troy McClure movie title from an episode of The Simpsons. Then take even the briefest glance at Dustin Hoffman, playing a 200-year-old toy inventor who’s a cross between Willy Wonka, Bill Nigh, the Science Guy and Yahoo Serious.
My reasons for granting a pass are pretty simple. The movie – centering on the electric-maned inventor’s magical toy store, his musically-gifted store manager, a sensitive little boy, and a pet zebra – never slips into the lurking temptation to fetishize the toys. You walk into the film expecting to be dragged by the kids to Toys’R’Us afterward. Instead, Magorium spends most of its time on half-decently developed relationships forged among its characters.
The performances aren’t bad, keeping in mind the limits that naturally stick to this style. Surprisingly, this is the most that I’ve enjoyed watching Natalie Portman since Closer and Garden State. She plays to her pixie-ish-est as Magorium’s store manager, a former teen-age music prodigy who hasn’t lived up to her promise (Read into that what you will.). It’s certainly not a demanding role, but it’s the first time in a long time where she doesn’t seem overburdened by the expectations of her youth.
As for Magorium the man, Dustin Hoffman must wonder how it came to filling this role. But like a birthday clown, he has the class not to show it in front of the kids. Sure, the lisp gets annoying. But he balances it with mirth. When he and Portman do a tap-dance on a sheet of bubble wrap in a public park, it’s done with a carefree touch.
The film has human warmth. Unlike its obvious inspiration, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it doesn’t power up on pint-sized schadenfreude. There’s no bully or snob getting their comeuppance, thus avoiding the easiest kids movie plot conflict available. Instead, the movie sweetly turns on friendship and what it means, at the simplest level, to be in one. Not everything works. Maybe not even the majority. But I would have enjoyed it as a kid. It didn’t make me cringe as an adult. So there’s no reason to tell you not to see it..