Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Best Film You'll See About a Wonder Emporium All Year

Whimsy is a trick thing to convey on film. Its trickier when you consider the fact that in order for it to work the filmmaker needs the audience to meet him half-way. Try to force your hand, get too treacly, too cloying, too romantic and cynical audience members will laugh it off as utter nonsense. For every genuinely whimsical Mary Poppins, Labyrinth or Toy Story you get stuck with a North, a Toys or a Space Jam. Then there are the in-betweens, the ones people furiously argue over, your Hooks, your Joe Versus the Volcanoes, your Goonies. When a story-teller tries to conjure up those squishy, child-like feelings they're normally derided. Its a narrow tight-rope to walk on and in his newest film rookie director and much buzzed about screenwriter Zach Helm throws his hat into the arena of whimsy. Most of the critical community has chosen to spit in this hat, but I am more than happy to toss a few shillings in myself.

I have a confession to make. I like Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. A lot. Its not perfect, not by a long shot. By the movie just worked for me. On a purely chemical level; the plot, the characters, the dialogue, it just worked. I like that it isn't really a "be-yourself" or "you-can-do-it" sort of morality tale that has infected children's films like a virus. It also encourages imagination but doesn't ignore that even magical people are bound to certain financial responsibilities. At its core, Magorium is about coming to terms with death and moving on from it.

Mr. Magorium (an occasionally grating Dustin Hoffman) is pushing 240 some odd years and in a career that includes inspiring Thomas Edison to create the light bulb, inventing the paper airplane, his crowning achievement is a magical toy store. Magorium, though, feels his time is up so he wants to pass on the store to his assistant and former piano prodigy Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). Before doing so he wants to ensure his affairs are in order so he hires Henry Weston (my beloved Jason Bateman playing an amalgamation of Ferrel's character in Stranger than Fiction and Michael Bluth from Arrested Development). Henry is the no-nonsense workaholic who naturally fails to see the magic of the place, but he's not so closed minded as he befriends another Emporium employee, Eric (odd but not odd enough Zach Mills). If the movie were just Magorium passing on the store to Mahoney the movie wouldn't work. Bateman is perfect casting because as the centerpiece of a show that was all about ironic detachment and being too cool for traditional "messages" he's a natural cynic. Watching his heart grow two-sizes too big is what makes the movie so damn likable. From the moment he's being interviewed by Magorium, Helm writes him in such a way that everyone can see that it won't take much for the wonders of the place to slowly peel away his stick-in-the-mud exterior.
From its charmingly designed opening titles (there's something comforting about well-stylized titles that clue you into what the movies about) Helm shows that while this is a movie for kids it refuses to talk down to its audience or leave the adults out of the proceedings. The material stay light but the pall of death lingers over the proceedings. Helm is careful to not use the "d" word until it is absolutely inevitable. The store begins to reflect Mahoney and the other characters feelings about Magorium's inevitable passing and the store begins to lose control of itself (walls deteriorate, colors drain and lemurs appear) wreaking havoc with the patrons (and heading dangerously close toward Jumanji territory). The film is not without its quiet somber moments and this is where the film really separates itself from its more embarrassing peers. In one scene its just Magorium talking to the store, expressing his disappointment in the buildings temper-tantrum. The other involves Magorium chatting about King Lear and how after an incredible work of fiction, Shakespeare kills of this epic character with the simple piece of text "he dies." Magorium concludes that if its good enough for Shakespeare its good enough for him. Furthermore, death is what puts the beauty of a life into sharp relief. The perfect punctuation. Its heady stuff for a children's film but its all pitched at a level that parents can appreciate and clever children will pick up on.

Prior to Stranger than Fiction's release there was much ballyhooing about how Helm was the new Charlie Kaufman. I think its an unfair comparison. While both writers tamper with conventional structure, stretch and skewing narrative in unusual ways, the two have separate concerns and very separate styles. I also think Helm is more of a romantic than Kaufman, he believes in the good, the magic in all people to be exceptional. Anyone whose seen Human Nature or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind would be hard pressed to say the same of Kaufman.
Helm's Stranger than Fiction earned a small but earnest following last year and hopefully with time Magorium will do the same. The film is too clever to be dismissed outright and deserves a look by anyone willing to give it a chance.

One last thought before I go: the film features a quick, but wonderful cameo that is simply too perfect to spoil. Lets just say that one of the customers of the Wonder Emporium used to host a beloved 70's variety show and has starred in a bunch of movies himself. It was great seeing him again.

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