I feel that we all have one movie that has truly informed our life: a moral compass, a testament to the great wonders of human existence, a friend to lean on, or simply a tour de force to admire. For some, this might be “Forrest Gump” or “Dead Poets Society” or maybe “The Truman Show,” but I would have to say that the best embodiment of all things I hold dear is “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.”
On its surface, the movie highlights the final days of the wacky two-hundred-forty-three-year-old toy store owner Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) as he prepares to leave the Emporium to his apprentice and manager of the store, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). Audiences find themselves viewing the story through the eyes of a young, curious outcast, Eric (Zach Mills), which lends the film a naive quality but still transcends age barriers. I remember watching this a few times with my mom as a kid and being amazed at the colorful visuals and storybook feel while she praised Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” when it came on during a scene. This was one of those movies that lingered in the back of my mind until I decided to give it another watch my senior year of high school. As I approached the end of my teenage years, I found that this movie no longer satisfied a childlike thirst for amusement, but opened my eyes to complex themes and changed my entire outlook on life.
I’d say the most prevalent message in this movie is why the loss of childhood doesn’t have to be disheartening. We learn that Mahoney is a representation of forfeited hope through her failed attempts at composing a concerto and immediate denial that she could possibly run the Emporium alone after Magorium leaves. She believes in the power of music, in the magic of the toy store and in the general sense of wonder that life is constantly producing, but she no longer believes in herself. As Eric puts it, “I don’t know why grown ups don’t believe what they did when they were kids. I mean, aren’t they supposed to be smarter?” Although getting older has caused Mahoney to stop believing that she still has the same “sparkle” as she did when she was a child piano prodigy, she learns to re-define personal success and identify it in her relationships rather than solely in her work. Confronting feelings of grief, frustration and desperation allow her to, in turn, embark on a journey of self-discovery, tenderness, and re-birth. There is one small detail relating to this transformation that I really love: in one of the first shots, we see that the Emporium’s storefront showcases no title other than the letter “M.” It was never called “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” at all, much less was the film really about him. It was about Molly.
There is also a profound and stark introduction to heartache and mortality that I didn’t fully grasp as a kid. Though the movie is short, Mahoney visibly advances through each stage of grief upon learning that Magorium is going to pass away. It begins with denial, where she plans a whole day for Magorium centered around his favorite pastimes, convincing him not to go, and ends in acceptance, where she finally gains the confidence to take over the Emporium by herself. Death is never an easy thing to digest as a child, but director Zach Helm presents the concept in a way that dissolves much of its daunting nature. As Magorium is saying goodbye to Mahoney and finishing his philosophical Skapesperean take on demise, he mentions gently and assuringly, “Light bulbs die, my sweet. I will depart.”
Perhaps most importantly, a theme that is really pushed throughout the movie is the vitality of wonder, and this is represented in each character’s relationship with somebody else. Magorium and the store have informed Eric, Eric informs Mahoney, and Mahoney informs Mutant (the store’s accountant) (Jason Bateman) of the presence of beauty in everyday life, even when each of them struggle to find it in their own experiences. If nothing else, you must applaud the simplicity of it all.
This is a movie that patiently and expertly teaches people of all ages about believing, being forgiving, and learning to regard each day as though it’s a new adventure. Never is it aggressively trying to make you feel sad or stunned or inspired, but these emotions will hold a guaranteed place in the hearts of everybody upon viewing.