Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2007

Stranger than . . . fiction?

Zach Helm takes his lumps with script No. 2, but enlivens this modern-day fantasy with charm and humor

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
20th Century Fox
Director: Zach Helm
Screenplay: Zach Helm
Starring: Natalie Portman, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Bateman, Ted Ludzik, Zach Mills and Rebecca Northan
Rated G / 1 hour, 33 minutes
Opened November 16, 2007
(out of four)

Once again, an accountant represents all that is dull and unimaginative and lifeless about life. Once again, the accountant has to be shaken out of his doldrums by an open-minded, free-spirited woman working in a warm, inviting, creative atmosphere. Only this time, instead of a cookie shop, it's a toy store. And the focus is more on the girl.

Last year, the accountant was Will Ferrell and the girl was Maggie Gyllenhaal in the wonderful postmodern comic fantasy Stranger than Fiction. This time, in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, the girl is Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), and she works in a magical toy store - and the accountant is Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), on whom the store's magic just can't work.

Both movies come from the mind of young screenwriter Zach Helm, and while there are lots of similarities between the two, they exhibit drastically different styles. Stranger than Fiction was a whimsical look at reality . . . intersecting with literature, of course. Wonder Emporium isn't just whimsical - it's rooted squarely in the magical, insulated against the real world that's just out the front door. It's almost Peter Pan-ish in its devotion to "believing."

The titular toy store is going under new management. Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is leaving - in the eternal sense - after 244 years, during which time he's helped Edison invent the light bulb and played chess with Napoleon, with all of it being written down by the bookmaker who lives in the basement, Bellini (Ted Ludzik). He's handing over control of the store to Molly, the talented and beautiful cellist who doesn't know exactly what she wants to do with her life, or how to figure that out. But she's inheriting her own business, right? Certainly that has to be a good career move?

Except . . . well, Mr. Magorium hasn't exactly told her that she's getting the store yet. Nor has he told her that he's going to die in one day's time. To put it mildly, this all comes as quite a shock.

Even to the store. Always pulsating with a supernatural brand of life and energy, the store begins to "pout" upon hearing the news - magical toys stop working, magical doors stop opening, the wallpaper loses its color.

But before Mr. Magorium leaves, he brings in Henry - nicknamed "The Mutant" - to get his finances in order. After all, he's never paid attention to profits, prices and budgets - but he has kept boxes and boxes of receipts from the last couple centuries. Of course, getting the books straight isn't really of much importance - Mr. Magorium seems to have other ideas for The Mutant. He doesn't believe, you see. And there's also the matter of that girl who manages the store. She's siiing-le.

Then there's Eric (Zach Mills), the lonely, imaginative boy who collects hats and spends seemingly all his free time at the toy store, much to his mother's chagrin. He's the childish center the film needs.

In his first script, Helm managed to pull off a tricky balancing act with near-perfection. This time, making his directorial debut, he's nowhere near perfect, but still manages to create a lovingly idiosyncratic world of his own. There was an article in a recent Entertainment Weekly about the set design of the recent Fred Claus. Sure, the production design in that movie was fine, only director David Dobkin never really let us experience it. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium doesn't make the same mistake - the camera weaves in and out of all the nooks, corners and secrets of the store, trying to uncover every detail. And during a pivotal sequence late in the film, Helm uses a beautiful color technique that all but sells the third act by itself.

Portman is a great leading lady for the role, and Bateman - reaping the benefits of his comeback as the star of the best comedy in television history, Arrested Development - is perfectly cast. Surprisingly, the weakest member of the cast is Hoffman as the title character, which seems like it must have been inspired by the Mad Hatter from Disney's Alice in Wonderland.

I've seen him disappear into dozens of characters, but this isn't one of them. You can always see him acting, forcing the overbite, the lisp, the voice and everything else that makes the character QUIRKY!

Still, he's only part of an ensemble - and to be fair, the character is loveable enough that the film as a whole manages to sidestep his over-obvious eccentricities. The visuals - most of them, at least - are creative and interesting enough that you can just rest your eyes on them. You wouldn't mind accidentally walking into the Wonder Emporium. Head over to the book section - as the camera panned over it, I noticed (thankfully) they're selling the great Goodnight, Moon. As long as they've got Where the Wild Things Are as well, I'm sold.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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