Some films set their sights very high, others very low. Napoleon Dynamite, for example, is an extremely unambitious movie and it actually succeeds because of that. It’s not pretentious, but soft spoken and light-hearted. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, on the other hand, has lofty ambitions to be a great film and succeeds in spite of that. It’s trying so hard to be strange and ironic, but it comes across as quietly charming when it finally calms down.
Not in the Most Whimsical Mood
When I first saw Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium I wasn’t in a whimsical mood. I had just quit my job in Seattle to move down to Utah to marry the woman of my dreams. She had returned from a mission and was eager to get married as quickly as possible, but I wanted to wait until after I landed a job and it just so happened to be at the height of the 2008 recession so jobs were hard to come by. Even though it seemed counter-intuitive to leave a comfortable job and go to a place I knew little about, I knew it was the right thing to do, and it’s turned out for the best.
Shortly after I arrived in Utah, my wife’s family took a road trip to where my wife served her mission in San Diego so we could see a Hispanic convert get married. It was a happy occasion, but I was a little nervous. I barely knew anyone besides my wife in her family and I felt shy about being in close quarters to them for a few days. On the trip to and from San Diego, we watched several movies on a small TV screen in the van and one of them was Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.
Who’s Telling the Story?
Right off the bat, this movie bothered me with its self-importance. Eric Applebaum opens the movie by narrating, “This is one of my favorite stories, even though it starts in a basement.” Okay… what is that supposed to mean? Is it a problem to start a story in a basement? The Sixth Sense did, and that’s a really good movie. Already this film is both confusing and annoying me. There’s plenty more where that came from.
Eric explains that he is going to narrate the story from the perspective of Bellini, a bookkeeper who lives in the basement of the emporium and sleeps with a dolly (the pointless details are already piling up). When I first saw this, I thought maybe this bizarre framing was meant to set up some important part of the story that I wouldn’t see coming until the end. Maybe Bellini would actually do something later on. But no, the very first bits of information the movie chooses to share mean nothing. They’re not even funny, if that was what the movie was trying to do.
So Much Potential
Thank goodness we’re soon introduced to Molly Mahoney, who’s played by Natalie Portman. We’re told that she’s a child prodigy who showed so much potential as a pianist but is now 23 and failing to live up to her potential. Boy is that a fitting description for this film, I thought. Here it sets up this huge world full of wonder and magic, but it doesn’t mean anything and it’s not particularly interesting to watch. What a missed opportunity.
A nice touch, literally, is that Molly absent-mindedly plays an imaginary piano with her fingers when she’s on a bus, manning a counter or relaxing anywhere else. The film soundtrack matches her key strikes, letting us feel her magic in a subtle way instead of being bombarded by unnecessary visuals. This movie definitely taught me to enjoy quiet moments like these.
Mr. Magorium or Willy Wonka?
And then it’s right back to bizarro world when we’re introduced to Mr. Edward Magorium. I didn’t like this character from the very first scene he’s in. I usually like quirky characters, like Doc Brown or Willy Wonka, because I can see little sparks in them of how they came to be what they are. But Mr. Magorium is totally unapproachable. He’s 243 years old… which doesn’t make any sense. He’s too old and too set in his ways for me to even begin to conceive why he is who he is. His voice is supposed to be cute, but it comes across as a bad Adam Sandler impression. And the first time we meet him, he’s talking about turnip pudding, sleeping upside down and other random things. He won’t close his mouth for just a second to let me process his antics!
By the way, why is Mr. Magorium able to live so long? Is he human or is he some sort of Tolkien-esque race? Does the emporium somehow give him magical powers? Does he simply believe in himself so much that he can stop himself from dying? Anakin Skywalker tried that in Star Wars: Episode III and it didn’t work out too well for his wife, so what is Natalie Portman doing trusting another guy who claims to have similar power over death? Odd.
Anyway, we soon discover that Mr. Magorium is similar to Willy Wonka. Both of them want to pass on their greatest creations to someone they can trust. Early on, Mr. Magorium explains he is dying. Molly takes him to a hospital, but the doctors can’t find anything wrong with him, so I don’t know why he’s so certain he’ll depart. Does he commit suicide? I hope not. Wonka only explained his purpose in looking for a replacement at the end of his movie. He wanted to give his Chocolate Factory to a pure child who would run it like he would. Mr. Magorium has seen Molly grow up into a confused adult and he knows if she just believes in herself she’ll be a perfect replacement for him. If he had just explained that at the start I would have felt a lot less confused about what he’s doing the whole time.
Mr. Magorium hires an accountant named Henry Weston to take inventory of the emporium and get everything set up so Mr. Magorium can leave everything to Molly after he departs. For some reason, he feels compelled to throw in more stupidity by calling him a “Mutant.” He even pronounces it like they do in This Island Earth, rather than X-Men. But most children watching this movie are probably more familiar with the latter film. Way to confuse your audience, movie.
For the job interview, Mr. Magorium asks Henry to name the 11th to 16th numbers in the Fibonacci series, and then asks him if they need the number 4, and why there are never enough buns for hot dogs. What do these questions have to do with anything? We’ll get to that later. Henry’s answers please Mr. Magorium, so he hires him.
A Comedy That’s Not Funny
Henry is the only character who is confused by everything he sees. He lives in the real world, which makes it that much more jarring to see all of these magical things happening in the emporium. Plus, he gives my exact reaction to this movie’s “jokes.” At one point Molly shushes him for calling the emporium a toy store and she whispers, “If these kids found out this was a toy store, we’d have a madhouse on our hands.” Henry remains expressionless, so Molly adds, “That was a joke.” She actually had to point out when she was telling a joke. That’s how ridiculous this movie is. I can’t even tell when it’s trying to be funny because none of its jokes work. At no point in the movie did I actually laugh at any of the visual or verbal gags.
Henry and Eric have the best relationship in the movie. Henry never stops working, which I admire, and Eric has trouble making friends, which I can relate to from my childhood. Watching them interact and try to figure each other out is a pleasant interlude that should have been a bigger part of the film. I especially love the scene where Eric shows Henry his hat collection. The fact that Eric wears a different hat every day seemed to be one more random thing about the movie. But it actually led to a great scene where he and Henry wear different hats and pretend to be different characters. Henry really sells this scene with his bizarre voice and fun acting. I didn’t laugh, but I did enjoy this scene immensely.
Henry learns to use his imagination, and he changes for the better more than any other character. Molly already believes in herself enough to make the shop work; she just doesn’t know it until the end. But Henry, who doesn’t believe in any magic, has a complete change of heart by the end.
Why Are You Messing with Me, Movie?
So Mr. Magorium dies and it’s all sad because Molly wants to sell the emporium. But one night Henry is able to convince her that the store really is magical by getting her to make her block of wood fly. So after seeing this you would think Molly would be convinced not to sell the emporium, right? Wrong. Henry passes out and when he wakes up Molly tells him she signed a paper that morning selling the emporium. What? She then acts like nothing happened last night. WHAT?! Excuse me, but we the audience were there last night. We know you’re lying, so why are you saying these things?
Once again, Henry reacts to this stupidity the way I would and he tries to convince Molly that what took place the night before actually took place. Boy this scene is annoying. The only purpose it could serve is to make Henry repeat everything she said about the emporium being magical. But how is that supposed to awaken her belief in herself, which is apparently what powers the emporium? She already started believing in herself the night before!
And why would Molly sign a document selling the emporium? Or was she just joking about that? If she’s telling the truth, then the emporium is no longer hers and the story ends on a down note. But if she’s lying then what purpose could that possibly serve except for annoying the audience? I really don’t get it.
Dig Deeper to Find the Meaning
This movie left such a bad taste in my mouth that I couldn’t stand to watch it again for more than a year. But I finally bit the bullet and gave it another shot a few weeks ago, and I was pleasantly surprised that the second time I found it to be much less frustrating and a bit more interesting. The third time I watched it, I started to untangle its symbolism. It’s still not funny, but there is some method to its madness.
I finally understand the purpose of the strange framing device of having the movie narrated by Eric but told from Bellini’s perspective. Bellini chronicles Mr. Magorium’s life in books and the movie is separated into chapters. I guess Eric is reading those books to us. So, one mystery solved.
I liked Molly a lot more the second time around. The movie takes a long time to make a simple statement about believing in yourself. But when it finally comes at the end, it is a nice one. Molly already has everything she needs to fill Mr. Magorium’s shoes; she just has to trust that she does. For example, before she opens a big book and makes toys magically appear, she already has faith that it will happen. There’s a good lesson in there about needing to believe before you can see.
Mr. Magorium isn’t as annoying as I first thought. Yes, he acts like a cross between Rain Man and Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, but I get the sense that there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s lived far longer than anyone should and he’s tried to spread joy during all of those years. Perhaps he’s even supposed to be symbolic of the United States of America. He says he started making toys in the 1770s, which is when the 13 states started fighting for their freedom. He is a one-of-a-kind man, just like how the United States is unique in the history of the world. And when he dies, another must take up his charge and continue in his place, just as ordinary American citizens are charged to do each election. Maybe I’m reading too much into that, but it’s an intriguing possibility.
I love the last scene Mr. Magorium has with Molly. He talks about William Shakespeare’s character King Lear. He was a great man who finally dies without any fanfare. That’s exactly how Mr. Magorium goes.
He throws a paper airplane, which flies around the emporium, soaks up all the magic and then lands at his feet, signifying his death. I like how the airplane floats magically around, curving and staying afloat for longer than the law of gravity should allow. This seems to represent life. Life is magical if you think about it. We don’t know how it started or where it’s going. But somehow it keeps going, sometimes much longer than we expect. And eventually it comes to an abrupt end. Mr. Magorium’s magic used to light up the emporium, but now it’s Molly’s turn.
Henry, the Accountant
At first I thought the questions Mr. Magorium asked Henry were completely pointless, but now I see they were testing him in three ways. The first tested his intelligence. The second tested his love for his fellow men. Mr. Magorium asks if they really need the number 4, but what he’s really asking is do they really need other people. There are four main characters in the movie and Mr. Magorium is subtly saying he’s going to die because they don’t really need all four of them. He’s also referencing the cube he gave Molly because Henry points out that squares have four sides, and Mr. Magorium says he definitely likes squares. Squares represent people in this film.
The final question is about why there are more hot dogs than buns. Henry says that it’s good to be prepared with extras because anything can happen. This shows that he’s willing to use his imagination. So the three questions, more than just being random, actually show that Henry is smart, cares about people and is creative. He’s definitely the right man for the job of dealing with the emporium.
Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium still isn’t funny to me. But instead of feeling impassive to its attempts at comedy, I feel more like Henry does when Molly tells another bad joke. When he’s again unmoved she says he needs to work on his sense of humor, and he responds offhandedly, “I’m laughing on the inside.” This movie doesn’t have the power to generate a single laugh from me, but it does produce a few smiles. And I guess that’s enough for this movie.
I’d like to open up for a minute about friendship. When I was in college I realized I didn’t understand the concept of friendship very well. I had known people I considered friends when I was younger, but we always wound up parting ways at some point. I felt like I didn’t really understand how to be a good friend. So I went around asking different people I met what it means to be a friend. I got a lot of different responses, and I finally formulated my definition that a friend is someone who genuinely cares about others and is missed by those people when he or she is not around.
I bring this up because I can truly relate to both Henry and Eric as they slowly build a friendship. Neither really knows how to make friends and at first they struggled to even have a conversation. But then they spend all day together at the emporium and they realize they enjoy each other’s company. So they play together at Eric’s house and Eric later goes to see Henry at his accounting job. I love the fact that Eric calls Henry his friend only after he understands what it means to be a friend. I wouldn’t mind at all if the movie had been mainly about these two characters.
Messing with the Mutant
The last scene is a little less grating on me now. Maybe the reason Molly pretends to be ignorant about the flying cube is so that she can turn the tables and get Henry to have the same experience she had. He knows the store is magical, and he just has to come out and say it to make magical things happen. Also, maybe she lies about already having signed a document selling the emporium so she can make him feel an urgent need to change her mind. I don’t know. That part still makes little sense, but at least I don’t feel like it’s absolutely ridiculous anymore.
The Point of All This
Basically, this movie boils down to one thing for me: In a seemingly random world, we have to pay close attention to find the little bits of meaning. The first time I watched this movie I was overwhelmed by the colors, toys and other visuals until I had no room left in my mind to figure out what the movie is about. It just looked like a mess. Mr. Magorium sums it up well when he gets on a public phone and asks to talk to Henry. He says, “I have something very, very supremely important to tell you.” But just as he is about to say it, he runs out of time and is disconnected. He shrugs his shoulders and says, “Oh well. He’ll figure it out.” I think I finally did.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
All photos from Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium are the copyright of their owners.