Dustin Hoffman doesn't really quite marquee a movie now, doesn't he? I still remember one of his earlier classics as The Graduate which still remains one of my favourite films ("Do you want me to seduce you?"), and his award winners like Rain Man, Tootsie, Kramer vs Kramer, or even commercial movies like Hero, Hook and Sphere. Lately though I felt he's relegated to support status and bit roles within ensembles, and even though he's the titular character of Edward Magorium, his screen time is still limited, mirroring Magorium's passing of the baton to Natalie Portman's Molly Mahoney the store manager.
Written and directed by Zach Helm, who wrote the strangely surreal Stranger Than Fiction, I'd come to expect that while Mr. Magorium's Wonderful Emporium is like a nicer, friendlier version of The Little Shop of Horrors, it still in essence retains a modern fairy tale like narrative, with chapters unfolding between episodic scenes. The emporium is a magical toy store where toys come alive, like in other movies like Jumanji, Small Soldiers or even Toy Story, but no talking toys please, that'll stretch it a little too much.
But the fantastical element here belongs to Hoffman's Magorium himself. While we know he's capable of feats, after all, the toy shop and its toys are alive, but the background of the character is deliberately left a little vague, only letting it on that he had lived way, way past retirement, and has decided to expire. In looks, he's like a cross between Albert Einstein with his frizzy hair, and an aging Willy Wonka in his Chocolate Factory, welcoming children everyday to make his place their playground, speaks with a lisp, and is an avid shoe-wearer. In character, cross Hoffman's mannerisms in Rain Man and comedic angle in Meet the Fockers, and you have Magorium.
So what of Portman? Her Molly is a piano child prodigy who got stuck, and finds herself working for Magorium in the magical shop. What she's lacking is the belief in herself, and one of Magorium's intention through implicit training is to impart some lessons in self-belief. Which means throwing her into the deep end of the pool, and therein this changing of the guard. Molly can whine, protest, and soon finds herself with enormous shoes to fill, but has her hands full in trying to convince a skeptic, Henry (Jason Bateman) the accountant brought in to do the books and company valuation, that the store is alive.
Basically, it's a story about friendship, with new ties that bind, when old ties fade away, the never ending cycle of knowing new folk, while others sometimes unfortunately slip behind. The focus is strongly affixed to this theme, while those enticed by the technicolor and expected a visual effects extravaganza as seen in the trailers, will be slightly disappointed. Sure, the effects were necessary to bring the Emporium to life, but not seen as primary, and definitely nothing truly groundbreaking.
It's also suitable for those who grew up with lots of toys and spend time in make pretend and even talking to them, well, this movie is definitely for you. Sit tight during the end credits too, as the production crew get described in really child like terms, and is education for those who do not know what those technical terms normally mean. Sit through to the end, and get yourself rewarded with a small scene as well.