In a recent USA Today, Dustin Hoffman admitted to lobbying for the role of Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s near-miss 2005 remake of the beloved 1971 original. "I was told it was Johnny [Depp] and Tim's and that's that,” Hoffman said.
But the two-time Oscar winner clearly wasn’t ready to give up the dream of playing an eccentric enabler of childlike wonderment. So he went with Plan B, portraying the 243-year-old proprietor of a magical toy store in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, the directing debut of screenwriter Zach Helm. The film strives to convey childhood’s open horizons, the sense of unabashed awe that results from reading the best fairytales. But this wooden fable about the importance of believing in yourself is merely a collection of cutesy details that never coalesces into a strong narrative.
The magical, almost alien store, whose gingerbread-house exterior looks purposely out of place in its urban locale, is stuffed with imaginative items like the world’s largest dodgeball (“impossible to dodge”), an emotionally needy sock monkey and books that splash water on readers. But production designer Thérèse DePrez enslaves the goodies within dark red walls festooned with dark wood sculptures that throw off an inappropriately baroque feeling. This is not the high-ceilinged sunnyness of Manhattan’s FAO Schwarz.
Presiding over the store is Mr. Magorium (Hoffman), who’s so old he beat Abraham Lincoln in hopscotch and has an IOU from Thomas Edison. Adorned in gray pinstripes and topped with David Lynchian hair, Magorium remains a mystery throughout. All we know is he’s old, he talks funny and, as we soon learn, he’s about to “depart this plane” and leave the store to esteem-challenged 23-year-old manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman).
Indeed, the journey Helm is asking us to take is really Molly’s. But the character, like most everything else here, is underdeveloped. A former piano prodigy whose life is stuck in neutral, Molly manages the emporium in lieu of finding her proper place in the world. She’s content being with Mr. Magorium, and his entreaties to take over the store feed her lack of confidence. Magorium hints at his coming demise by announcing the arrival of an accountant (or “mutant” as he calls him) charged with assessing the store’s value.
The bean counter is Henry (Jason Bateman, pleasant in a role that could’ve used more zing) who knows nothing of joy, only paperwork and the adult desires of the county zoning commission. Henry’s transformation from major sourpuss to minor sourpuss is predictable and helped along by another sketchily written character, Eric (Zach Mills), a shy 9-year-old with a prodigious hat collection who hangs out in the store.
It’s hard to imagine that Helm, who broached similar themes of reaching one’s potential in his script for the under-appreciated Stranger Than Fiction, would consider Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium as having fulfilled its potential. The movie lacks tension, and whatever conflict is engendered by Molly’s whirlwind attempt to get Magorium to reconsider his departure (including getting him to dance on a large sheet of bubble wrap, evoking Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia’s piano duet in Big) is too weak to drive the film.
Like Willy Wonka’s office, where every object is cut in half, Helm’s creation is only half realized. He’s cognizant of the emotions he’s trying to provoke, but he lacks the experience to know how to convey them, so we’re left with storybook archetypes, not fleshed-out individuals on life-changing journeys. This leaves the cast pretty much stranded. The great Hoffman seems to be operating with some semblance of a plan, but it’s still just ticks and mannerisms that don’t endear us to Mr. Magorium or make us care that he might die.
Meanwhile, the cleverest bits have nothing to do with the story. The end credits are broken up with headings like “People Who Made Sure We Paid People” for the finance department and “People Who Created Things That Weren’t There” for the effects department. Even the possessory credit reads, “supposedly a film by Zach Helm.” Then again, given the rickety movie he’s peddling, maybe he was right to leave the question of stewardship in doubt.
Distributor: Fox Walden
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman
Director/Screenwriter: Zach Helm
Producers: Richard N. Gladstein and James Garavente
Genre: Family comedy
Running time: 94 min.
Release date: November 16, 2007