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Overall Rating

Awesome: 3.7%
Worth A Look: 3.7%
Just Average: 25.93%
Pretty Crappy: 3.7%

3 reviews, 9 user ratings

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Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
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by Peter Sobczynski

"And You Thought The Title Was Insufferable"
1 stars

A few days ago, I was privileged to catch a screening of a restored version of one of the most beloved family films of all time, Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 masterpiece “The Red Balloon.” For those of you unfamiliar with this particular title, it is a nearly dialogue-free French short about a little boy who finds and befriends a bright red balloon that seems to have a mind of its own–it follows the kid around everywhere like a loyal puppy dog and even hovers outside of his school to wait for him while class is in session. For most of its brief, 34-minute running time, the film is content to simply observe the two as they play on the streets of Paris (including a brief romantic rendevous between the red balloon and a cute little blue balloon that it spots on the street) and while this might not sound exceptionally gripping to read about, the end result is so charming and convincing that when a tragedy occurs near the climax, even those who held it together when Old Yeller had to go may find themselves struggling to hold back a tear or two. What is so great about the film (which actually won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) is that by approaching the material in a low-key and realistic manner, it allows the magic of the story to come shining through without bludgeoning viewers with reminders of how quirky and magical it is every five minutes or so. Because of that, “The Red Balloon” is one of those timeless classics that will continue to charm and enchant viewers of all ages and nationalities for decades to come. (By the way, “The Red Balloon” is returning to art houses throughout the country this month, paired with another Lamorisse short, 1953's “White Mare,” and if it comes to a theater in your area, it is not to be missed under any circumstance.)

Although I have no real way of verifying this, I suspect that none of the people involved with the production of the new family film “Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” have ever seen “The Red Balloon” before. If they had, my guess is that they all would have realized that their project was the utter antithesis of what Lamorisse so effortlessly achieved in his film and tried to figure out some way of getting out of their contracts. Simply put, this film is the absolute pits–a shrill, ugly and cloying monstrosity of hard-sell whimsy whose utter failure to provide even the slightest trace of actual enchantment is outdone only by its delusional insistence that it is the most wonderfully whimsical thing to ever appear on a movie screen. If you took “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and a gallon of super-sweet cake frosting and put them in a giant industrial blender set to “suck,” this is exactly the kind of bile-inducing bon-bon that might result.

The title refers to a New York City toy shop owned by one Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), a wacky creature of pure enchantment who is apparently 243 years old, supposedly once beat Abraham Lincoln at hopscotch, lives above the store with a full-sized zebra and speaks in an instantly annoying sing-song lisp that makes Raymond Babbitt, Hoffman’s character from “Rain Man,” sound like William Buckley by comparison. It turns out that the toy shop itself is also infused with magic as well–the toys play with the kids who roam the bustling aisles, games of Duck Duck Goose are played with real geese and no less a symbol of fantasy and fun than Kermit the Frog himself can be seen doing some shopping. For the last few years, the store has been managed by frustrated music composer Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) but although she adores both the store and Magorium, she feels that she needs to make a change if she is ever going to make it in her chosen field. Before she can tell Magorium that she is going to be leaving, he drops a bombshell on her–he is going to be departing the store for good and plans on leaving it to her. So serious is he about this that he has even hired an accountant, Henry Watson (Jason Bateman), to come in to make some sense of his books and to serve in the role of the ordinary stick-in-the-mud who becomes opened to the possibilities of life thanks to a heavy dose of whimsy and wonder.

Needless to say, Molly is less than delighted with Magorium’s news, especially when she discovers the reason why he is leaving. The store itself also has a few issues with this decision as well and the entire building begins to throw the kind of temper tantrum that might result if unscrupulous developers erected a F.A.O. Schwartz atop of an Indian burial ground. (Note to self: Bang out spec script on this idea to sell the minute the writers strike ends.) In an attempt to prevent Magorium from leaving, Molly first commits him to a hospital but when the doctors can’t find anything physically or mentally wrong with him (and when you consider the way that this guy looks and behaves, the failure to find anything off about him could be read as a searing indictment of the New York health-care system), she tries to convince him to stay by taking him around to do all the things that he never quite got around to doing in his previous 243 years of existence–such “charming” activities as setting all the clocks in a clock store to go off at the same time, mattress jumping (I said “jumping,” you perv), dancing on bubble wrap and making a call on a pay phone. Sadly, none of these activities is enough to make Magorium change his mind but he does present Molly with a block of wood that he claims will allow her to fulfil her destiny. (I guess this means that we can add “Hellraiser” to my earlier list of obvious influences.) Meanwhile, that stick-in-the-mud accountant learns to embrace the magic of the store and the world thanks to his bonding with Eric (Zach Mills), a strange little boy who possesses both an enormous hat collection and a mother who doesn’t seem overly put out when she discovers a strange grown man in her son’s bedroom.

“Mr. Margorium’s Wonder Emporium” is the kind of utterly tone-deaf fantasy that even the best filmmakers find themselves oddly compelled to do at some point in their careers–Barry Levinson’s “Toys,” Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “Jack” and Roberto Benigni’s “Pinocchio” are a few of the most nightmarish examples that immediately leap to mind. However, there are two immediate differences between those films and “Magorium.” For one, all of those films were made by talented filmmakers and while they demonstrated none of the skills that made them famous in the first place, you could at least sort of forgive them for wanting to let their hair down and do something aimed solely at younger viewers. By comparison, “Magorium” marks the directorial debut of Zach Helm, a young man whose only previous credit of note is his absurdly overrated screenplay for the faux-Charlie Kaufman nightmare “Stranger Than Fiction,” and based on his work here, his only real skill as a filmmaker appears to be is ability to convince a studio to not only purchase one of the most haphazardly-written screenplays in recent memory but to also allow him to be the one to spend untold millions of dollars to badly bring it to life. For a large-scale fantasy like this to work, you need a director with a unique visual eye to bring the material to life and right from the start, it is evident that Helm is not that man–he spends most of his time instead trying and failing to ape the nutty stylings of Tim Burton’s more light-hearted works.

The other difference between those previously-cited films and “Magorium” is that, with the possible exception of “Jack,” it could be argued that they were all good ideas in theory that fell apart in the execution and that if you looked hard enough, you could find a few worthwhile elements in each of them–“Toys” had a lovely opening 10 minutes and an always-astonishing visual style, “Hook” had a nice performance from Dustin Hoffman in the title role and “Pinocchio” had some of the most incredible production design in recent memory. “Magorium,” on the other hand, is such a mess in virtually every creative aspect that you can’t believe that no one at any point during its creation stepped in to point out its glaring flaws. As he did in his screenplay for “Stranger Than Fiction,” Helm offers us a magical conceit but doesn’t do any of the heavy lifting required to make it seem convincing or logical, even within the parameters of a family fantasy, not to mention a bizarre fetish for films in which drab accountants learn to live life to the fullest. We never know, for example, if it is Magorium who has infused the store with magic or vice-versa and we can never understand why the store is so put out about the idea of Molly, who is just as much of a starry-eyed dreamer as her boss, running the store in his stead. (Now if Magorium had given the shop to the accountant, the petulance might have made a little more sense.) A bigger problem than the lack of internal logic, though, is the fact that there is no real story for anyone to care about for even a second–it is all just a jumble of scenes that try to convince us that people are having fun without demonstrating any actual evidence of same–and the big dramatic conflict, the fact that Magorium is evidently shuffling off of this mortal coil, is fatally underdone by being introduced so early in the proceedings that the film hasn’t had enough time to make him into a character whose passing might actually move us to some degree. Instead, it comes across only as a cynical method of inspiring an emotional response that it simply hasn’t earned on its own merits. (By comparison, when it looked as if E.T. was going to kick the bucket, that particular development worked because by the time that plot twist kicked in, we were by then thoroughly invested in the character and his fate.)

What is especially distressing about “Magorium” is that three exceptional actors have been dragged into the proceedings and have then been given nothing to do other than stand around and look either bemused or befuddled while all sorts of nonsense goes on around them. Of the three, Jason Bateman is stuck with the most thankless part imaginable, the bore who learns to let his freak flag fly (in G-rated fashion, of course), and while he tries his best, he can’t quite overcome the inescapable fact that there is absolutely no reason for his character to exist in the story in the first place–he doesn’t even get to embark on the chaste romance with Portman’s character that seems to be almost inevitable. Speaking of Portman, I can understand why she might want to sign on for a more frivolous project; after the grimness of “V For Vendetta” and “Goya’s Ghosts,” she presumably wanted to do something a lot lighter and frothier as a change-of-pace. That said, what I can’t understand is why, after her well-known unhappiness with the experience of appearing in the recent “Star Wars” movies, she would voluntarily chose another project in which she would be forced to recite almost literally unspeakable dialogue while unconvincingly reacting to a swarm of overwhelming visual effects? Topping both of them, however, is the jaw-dropping performance from Dustin Hoffman as Mr. Magorium, a turn so spectacularly misconceived and executed that even if every other aspect of the film had been top-notch, the entire thing still would have turned out to be a disaster because it would still have it to overcome. Over the years, Hoffman has admittedly turned in his share of oddball performances (especially his over-the-top work as the master perfumer in the tragically underrated “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”) but for the most part, such turns have been in supporting roles that come and go before they can wear out their welcome. With Magorium, however, he seems to be playing the entire character as some kind of private joke that only he gets and the little tics that he deploys are so instantly annoying that most viewers will find themselves dreading ever scene in which he appears, not exactly the effect you want to have when you are supposed to be playing an endless source of enchantment and wonder. While this may not be the worst performance that Hoffman has ever delivered (though it certainly comes close), it is one that is so awful that I’m guessing that, given the choice, most rational-minded viewers would have preferred to see Robin Williams in the part.

“Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” is a film that is so bad that the extra-cutesy title, which sounds like one of the unfilmed projects of the late, great Troy McClure, actually turns out to be one of the less insufferable aspects of the whole enterprise. (Even the end credits, normally the most innocuous and blameless elements of a movie, are annoying enough here to make you want to slap the projectionist.) As coherent as a hyperactive kid flitting around after eating a case of Pixie Stix and as painful that child’s inevitable crash from the sugar high, this is the kind of family entertainment that gives family entertainment a bad name. Although it clearly aims to be a childhood perennial, my guess is that its only lasting impact will be as a form of punishment for especially unruly tots who refuse to eat their vegetables or clean their rooms.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15561&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/16/07 00:00:00
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User Comments

12/16/18 Ajpwales Awful. Voice. Sugar sweet. Money for hoffman. 1 stars
7/09/09 Shelley Smith The worst film I've seen this year. Leaps past Hook for bad idea. 1 stars
8/31/08 connie take time to muse with it...it's not just mindless entertainment! 4 stars
3/10/08 Brenda Warren This is my favorite movie of the year!! MUST SEE 5 stars
11/24/07 Alex This movie was INCREDIBLY awful -but the name is just so horrific it's still the worst part 1 stars
11/22/07 Jack Orvis One of the worst ever films to date 1 stars
11/19/07 julie filmmaking of the worst order 2 stars
11/17/07 william thornton the worst movie I have seen in at least 10 years 1 stars
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  DVD: 04-Mar-2008



Directed by
  Zach Helm

Written by
  Zach Helm

  Natalie Portman
  Dustin Hoffman
  Jason Bateman
  Zach Mills

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