FEATURING: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman, Zach Mills

PLOT: Mr. Magorium, who has run his magical toy store for nearly three centuries, prepares for his imminent departure from the earthly realm, but his plans to hand the reins over to store clerk and aspiring composer Mahoney are endangered by her ambivalence, the suggestions of a straight-laced accountant, and the protests of the store itself.

Still from Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (1993)


whim·​sy [ˈ(h)wim-zee] n. 1: capricious humor or disposition; extravagant, fanciful, or excessively playful expression: “a play with lots of whimsy.” 2: an odd or fanciful notion. 3: anything odd or fanciful; a product of playful or capricious fancy: “a whimsy from an otherwise thoughtful writer.”

Zach Helm has an undisguised interest in finding joy amidst the frustrations of life. His screenplay for Stranger Than Fiction focused on a person who has spent his whole life in the grey and comes late to discovering the beauty of leading a more colorful existence. Here, making his directorial debut, he presents a world drenched in color and offers us a character who revels in it, until she doesn’t, and has to find her way back. The former film looked wistfully at the joyful world that was lost. This time around, we need to be right in the heart of that joy, and Helm’s weapon of choice is whimsy. Truckloads of it.

Our setting, identified in the title, is a sort of mad mashup of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. It’s a hyperactive place, perpetually bustling with children who have somehow pried themselves away from their PlayStations so that they can indulge in the unexpected surprises of the toyshop. The toys come to life. Any plaything you desire can be found in a great big book. Bouncy balls are always on the lookout for an escape opportunity. There is always something going on, so much so that the movie is its own Easter egg generator. It’s the kind of a place where dinosaur skeletons peek out the window, Playmobil figures do actual construction, and Kermit the Frog does his weekly shopping. (That’s Kermit himself, looking strangely embarrassed to be stared at, or maybe just to be in the movie.) It’s fun, and then it’s fun, and ultimately it’s FUN, DAMMIT. 

All this is overseen by an enormously affected Hoffman. With eyebrows to rival Thufir Hawat and an Ed Wynn-style lisp that would be mincing under any other circumstances, he’s carefully constructed to be eccentric. Sometimes that’s refreshing, best exemplified by his equanimous attitude toward the impending end of his life. He’s not at all cynical, but eager to indulge in pleasures large and small right to the very end. On the other hand, he’s liberally draped with quirks: wearing loud patterns, bantering with his zebra roommate, and obsessed with hot dog buns. This can have mixed results: I groaned when Hoffman pointed out that a fish mobile consisted of living fish, but audibly chuckled when he turned his attention to a cheaper model made entirely of frozen fish fillets. But more often than not, his weirdness is flaunted rather than revealed. If you don’t get that Mr. Magorium is an eccentric fellow to the nth degree, I don’t know what to tell you. The movie has certainly made it clear.

There’s something almost impressive about the film’s commitment to making character traits as obvious as possible. Is Eric, the precocious, behatted 9-year-old, really just a literal-minded adult trapped in a child’s body? His 8-foot statue of Lincoln made entirely of Lincoln Logs and his prospective business plan for buying the store are hereby submitted into evidence. Will Henry the Fibonacci-sequence-quoting accountant (Bateman, in full Michael Bluth deadpan) be a total stick in the mud? Why, he’s got the “I never stop working” sign to prove it. And then there’s Mahoney, a shop clerk who seems completely open to the unusual nature of the store but whose creative shortcomings as a musician have somehow convinced her that a sad life of disappointment is the only answer. Natalie Portman is earnest, but she can never quite sell her character’s two diametrically opposed ways of viewing the world, a dichotomy only made more blatant by a late third-act shift in attitude that seems to contradict things we’ve seen for ourselves. 

All the while, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium keeps piling on the whimsy, seemingly terrified that you won’t get it. Production design is persistently exuberant; even a hospital is bathed in sunshine yellow. The score by Alexander Desplat and Aaron Zigman is almost frantic. It carries on right through the credits, which affix jaunty labels like calling the visual effects team “People Who Created Things That Weren’t There.” The movie can’t just let a silly thing be. Perhaps the most telling moment comes during one of Mahoney’s desperate attempts to keep Magorium from leaving, when she explains that the very name of the store can’t be changed: “It rhymes!” When you feel the need to call out the joke in the very title of the movie, you’ve demonstrated that your trust in the audience is practically nil.

Helm has reportedly disowned the movie in the years since its release, but I wonder if he knows why. It took a critical drubbing, it was a box office disappointment, it was aggressively sappy in a world of cynicism, but none of that is what’s wrong with Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. The problem is that the movie talks about magic, labels a great many things as magic, employs talented actors and boisterous special effects to embody magic, but has none of its own. For every moment of genuine wonder–like the sock monkey that reaches out pleadingly for a hug–there are 20 more that are fantastical only because the movie insists they are. And since the whole premise of the film is dependent upon acknowledging all this glorious wizardry, it becomes an instruction rather than a discovery. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium pulls off the astounding trick of turning magic into medicine.


“Children’s fantasies like Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium are a delicate proposition, because the whimsical elements that sustain them can also be their undoing…. Usually, there needs to be some sort of darkness or creepiness or weirdness to keep the sugar-rush under wraps, as there is in some of Magorium’s more obvious influences, such as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, or Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Yet there’s none of that necessary tension in Zach Helm’s curiously airless directorial debut, which floats along on the expectation that a magical toy store will somehow make a magical movie, with few flourishes necessary.” – Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Debasish Dey. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Where to watch Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium


  1. I remember “Toys”, and it still leaves me vaguely baffled. It may best be viewed as a strange ’90s relic, involving some of the top comedic (Robin Williams) and drama (Michael Gambon) and pop (Cusack/Wright/Cool J) acting/performer talents of the era, with a lavish budget and a big name director.

    Seeing as no one was harmed in the process (that I know of), I’m inclined to look kindly on it.

  2. “Toys” is in the Reader Queue, and would certainly have made for a thematic double feature. It will certainly get its moment in the sun (perhaps courtesy of one of you). But Mr. Magorium seemed like he deserved his own moment to explain himself.

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