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‘Mr. Magorium’ light but refreshing

POSTED: January 31, 2008 5:03 a.m.

The holiday season is upon us, and it’s time for movies to make us believe. Or, at least make us feel warm and fuzzy.

"Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium" tries to make us do both, and while it’s probably not the next holiday classic, it’s a charming, fun movie that never gets too serious.

It’s also the kind of movie kids will enjoy more than their parents. There aren’t the usual jokes only the adults will get, and there isn’t a major conflict to be found in the plot.

Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is 243 years old and is about to die. (The film finds all sorts of euphemisms to soften that blow for the kids, but eventually it is stated that way. So parents, be aware that death is a major theme here.) Magorium decides to give the store to his longtime manager, Mahoney (Natalie Portman). She was once a child prodigy musician and she struggles over whether she would be able to run the store with as much magic as Magorium. And that’s pretty much the whole story.

Since she is the character who makes us fall in love with the store, Mahoney’s conflict isn’t terribly compelling. It seems a no-brainer that she would take over for her boss. She has managed the store for years, believes in its magic and fits in perfectly.

That frothy central conflict is one of the best and worst things about the film. Keeping things light is good, but the film focuses on the self-doubts of a 23-year-old character for a long time. That may be where it loses both parents and children. If the tykes can maintain their attention, though, the final scenes bring back the magic and the payoff is worthwhile.

This movie clearly walks in the footsteps of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Each film’s title character is an eccentric inventor with the heart of a child who shows us a captivating world. "Wonka" is filled with memorable songs, chocolate rivers and comically spoiled children and manages to keep us laughing while delivering pointed parenting critiques. "Mr. Magorium" is similarly full of wonder, but isn’t as flat-out entertaining. There is no social critique here, which is OK, but there aren’t as many laughs either.

Perhaps the best quality of "Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium" is that it’s a genuine G-rated movie. The world of this movie is full of innocence and acceptance. There is no cursing, there are no military themes or gun imagery and there is no violence at all. Surprisingly, it has become rare to find a G movie for which all those things are true. Call me crazy, but a G-rated movie for kids SHOULD lack violence and swearing, and at the very least, the makers of "Mr. Magorium" understand that.

Magorium’s world is so innocent, in fact, that a grown man (Jason Bateman) ends up playing pretend with a young boy (Zach Mills) in the boy’s bedroom, and it isn’t lurid. It’s merely two very different characters who don’t make friends easily finding common ground. That kind of morality is refreshing.

"Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium" is a lot like a good toy store. It doesn’t have much practical value, but it’s a nice place to escape for a couple of hours.



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