Meet Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), the eccentric owner of a mystical, magical toy store, one he's run for years and years (237 of them, to be exact). Given his long tenure of duty, Magorium feels it's time to step down. All he needs to do is find a suitable successor, but the store itself has something to say about Magorium's plans, and soon lets him know that it has other ideas. So the stage is set for 'Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium.'
The directorial debut of Zach Helm (who so impressed me with his screenplay for 2005's underrated 'Stranger Than Fiction'), 'Mr. Magorium' is a wonderful chestnut of an idea that never quite blooms to fruition. It's a film that desperately wants to be the 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' for a new generation (right down to its derivative title and lead character), but one that works so hard to generate any sense of beguilement that its charms often feel belabored and obvious. It's the kind of film you really want to love, but simply end up admiring for its noble intentions.
The first third of the film focuses on Magorium and his store, and it's narratively lethargic. Things don't really get going until the introduction of Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman, still sporting the shorn locks of her 'V for Vendetta' period), who Magorium is grooming to take his place. She's unsure, however, if it's what she was meant to do, but more importantly, she seems to lack the confidence needed to step into Magorium's big shoes. Meanwhile, an accountant named Henry (Jason Bateman) is called in to balance the Emporium's books. Initially skeptical of the store's famed charms, Henry soon falls under its spell, with the grumpy young cynic opening his eyes to the wonder of the everyday objects that surround him.
Any fan of 'Willy Wonka' will see the similarities here, and like that 1971 classic, 'Mr. Magorium' is really about learning to grasp the responsibilities of adulthood and accepting one's mortality. Like 'Wonka,' 'Magorium' also sugarcoats its bitter pill just enough to avoid frightening the younger set. Unfortunately, where 'Wonka' employed acerbic wit and enough biting satire to please adults as well as children (particularly with Gene Wilder's seminal performance as Wonka), this 'Wonder Emporium' plays it too safe. Hoffman never captures the danger that Wilder did, and like the film that surrounds him, the actor is too cutesy and innocuous. The Portman and Bateman characters are also formulaic, having none of the edge needed to give the story real resonance.
The scenes that will likely play best for kids are, ultimately, those that concern the toy shop itself. All manner of CGI and practical effects are employed to bring its magical properties to life, as Molly and Henry try to keep it together with Magorium's departure. There are some fun bits here, particularly the whimsical touches (such as the use of colors -- or, rather, a lack of them -- as a metaphor for the store's state of mind), and the actors react well to all the blue screen and visual trickery (Portman seems especially adept, given her tenure in the 'Star Wars' prequels). Granted, as an adult I found some of this passe (you've seen one CGI effect, you've seen 'em all), but I have no doubt the film's G-rated target audience will be enchanted.
'Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium' is as handsomely-mounted as any major studio family film, and the production value is impressive. The set design is especially noteworthy (especially when you consider the fact that the entire film takes place in the store, yet there's always something new to see), and considering this is Helm's first directorial effort, he's already developed a nice eye for composition and pacing. It's just too bad the story he's telling never conjures up the same level of fascination as a genuine classic like 'Wonka,' or the even more recent fantasy fare like 'Bridge to Terebithia.' I can't say I didn't enjoy my trip to the 'Wonder Emporium,' but was I truly enchanted? Not really.
Fox presents 'Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium' in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video, spread across a BD-50 dual-layer disc. As much as I found the film itself lacking, there's no problem with the transfer -- it looks great.
The 'Wonder Emporium' is a visually sumptuous, colorful destination, and the vibrant palette is a highlight. The image is flush with rich hues that are very nicely saturated and cleanly rendered. Blacks are excellent, and the robust contrast (if still a little hot for my taste) lends the transfer excellent depth. Nicely detailed (even wide-shots are very dimensional) and with a super-clean print, 'Mr. Magorium' never looks less than razor-sharp. This is also a fine encode, and I suffered no compression artifacts. If not for the excessive contrast, I'd have given this one five stars.
In addition to the video, Fox delivers another fine DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit), along with English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround options (both 640kbps). It's a lively, involving experience and -- dare I say it -- fun for the whole family!
At first, the surrounds don't feel particularly aggressive. However, I did admire their consistency in the subtle delivery of atmosphere and sustained ambiance, so that the mix never felt front-heavy to me. There are also a few more action-oriented scenes that boast noticeable discrete effects, with nice imaging and accuracy of directed sounds.
Tech specs are easily up to snuff for a major new studio release. The orchestral score is bright and booming (but not overbearing), and all elements in the mix are nicely balanced, including dialogue. Low bass is present but doesn't interfere, while the dynamic range is pleasing and spacious. Perhaps 'Mr. Magorium' is not a true reference-quality soundtrack (it's just not bombastic enough to serve as a demo disc), but for what it does, it does very well.
'Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium' was announced with a couple of bonus features, namely two multi-part featurettes. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, none of that stuff is on the Blu-ray. Granted, I checked out the DVD version and the extras are pretty lame anyway, but still -- this comes off as an unfortunate omission on Fox's part for us Blu-ray supporters.
'Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium' desperately wants to be the 'Willy Wonka' for a new generation, but it doesn't quite get there. I liked the basic premise of the film, some of the performances, and the visual design, but the magic is largely missing. This Blu-ray release looks and sounds great, though the extras are the weak link. Give this one a rental, and keep your expectations low.