Like Wonder for Chocolate

Even if he is sweet, Jordan Canning says Mr. Magorium has no Everlasting Gobstopper.

Mr. Magorium is 243 years old. He has wily grey hair, a speech impediment and a pet zebra. He describes himself as an avid shoe-wearer. So avid that, after realizing he is down to his last pair, he decides that it’s time to leave this world for the great Toy Store in the sky

This arbitrary life-ending decision is only complicated by the fact that he himself is the owner of a toy store—The Wonder Emporium—where the merchandise magically comes to life on a daily basis. Without any children of his own, who will run the store after his peaceful passing?To Magorium, the answer is simple: the store’s sprightly manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman.) She, however, is not so sure. Once a prodigal child pianist, at 23 she has still not composed her first symphony and is plagued by a paralyzing case of self-doubt and writer’s block.

She is adamant that she cannot run the store, believing there is no magic inside of her. The Emporium seems to agree and begins ‘acting up’ as its owner’s inevitable departure draws nearer. The store, Magorium explains, is much like the children that frequent it—prone to sulking and tantrums when unhappy.

But Magorium is convinced his time is up, and he’s confident in Mahoney’s abilities to run the store—even if she isn’t. So, off he goes. And Mahoney is left to find her inner magic all on her own. Or almost on her own. There’s also Henry (Jason Bateman)—a stiff, non-believing accountant—and Eric (Zach Mills), a nine year-old loner who practically lives at the store.

As you can probably guess, there’s a happy ending in the cards. A feel-good, trust-in-yourself, clap-if-you-believe-in-fairies sort of ending that is, unfortunately, predictable. Right from the start.

–.–.–.–

If you think this tale sounds a little familiar, you’re right. The similarities to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory are hardly hidden and poorly imitated. And, having just re-watched the 1971 original for the umpteenth time since I was a kid, it’s clear the failures of Magorium’s Emporium are as persistent as an everlasting gobstopper.

At the root of the problem is whose story the filmmaker chooses to tell. While Mahoney is certainly sweet, it was odd to make the protagonist of a children’s film an insecure twenty-three year-old in the middle of an identity crisis.

At the end of Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka tells Charlie that he wanted a child to take over the factory because a grownup could never bring the same love, imagination or faith to something so magical. That piece of wisdom is forgotten by the writers of Magorium. It’s actually nine year-old Eric who would make the perfect heir to Magorium’s legacy—not to mention a more suitable and lovable hero for a kid’s movie—but he’s banished to a more peripheral (though exceptionally well-played) secondary role.

Every good kid’s movie needs a bad guy or two—a Veruca Salt or Augustus Gloop to root against. Having those rotten kids to hate makes you root for Charlie even more, and makes his victory in the end that much sweeter.

But everyone in Magorium’s Emporium is so darn… likable. There are no bad eggs, just good hearts. With nothing more driving it than saccharine life lessons about embracing your inner child, the story just chugs along at a steady and innocuous pace, moving towards the inevitable warm n’ fuzzy ending, and never really breaking any fresh ground.

Mahoney’s self doubt just isn’t enough to make us care or to keep us interested, and the story lacks any genuine conflict.

By and large, this is purely a children’s film, so don’t expect Harry Potter or The Incredibles. This film will appeal to very young kids, but their parents and babysitters will most likely be bored by the end of it.
There is one thing that can stand tall in the film’s defense: the Emporium itself. The production design is a triumph, and I only wish they had spent more time letting the audience ‘play’ in the store.

The 1971 version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was able to ingrain itself into the hearts of a generation of kids. Along with other greats like The Princess Bride and Labyrinth, kids who grew up watching these films continued to watch them as adults—not just for nostalgia, but because they are timeless films.

The sad truth is that Mr. Magorium will never become a Willy Wonka, and I doubt any of the kids sitting in that cinema with me last night will want to watch it again fifteen years from now.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is showing at the Avalon Mall’s Empire Studio 12. Call 722-5775 for times and prices.

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