When you're stuck how do you get unstuck? In Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) is stuck. She was a child prodigy on the piano, with so much potential. But at the wise old age of 23, she is still playing the song she won fame for almost 20 years earlier. She has not moved on, she has not moved forward. Her life is on pause, she has not attained her potential, in short . . . she is stuck.
Mahoney is store manager for Mr Magorium, played with a horrible accent by Dustin Hoffman. As with many aging actors whose best roles are behind them, Hoffman (Oscar for Kramer vs Kramer and Rain Man) has descended into trivial roles and goes through the motions here. Yet, despite mediocre acting, this G-rated magical fantasy is whimsical silliness that is fun to watch with your kids.
Mahoney, struggling to "believe in herself" is joined by 12 year-old Zach Mills, playing Eric, a weird kid who has no friends, and Jason Bateman as Henry the Mutant who does not believe in anything he cannot see. All have some growing to do, and all grow, as expected.
Mahoney says to the Mutant, "You're a 'just' guy. . . .A guy just like you. Same hair, same suit, same shoes, walks around, no matter what, you think it's all just a store, it's just a bench, it's just a tree. It's just what it is, nothing more! " He only sees what is there, no more. He cannot see potential. He cannot see what lies deeper. At one point, she asks him, "When you look at me what do you see?" confusing him. She repeats, "Do you see a sparkle?" or something invisible, something intangible.
Magorium's store is no ordinary toy store; it is a magical toy store. It rises to his presence. When he declares his imminent departure, like a petulant child it throws a temper tantrum. And when he declares he is giving the store to Mahoney, she refuses to accept his leaving or his leaving her the store. She is not ready.
The movie plays out the story of his departure and her arrival. She needs to find the spark of magic that will allow her to complete her first work, the symphony she has been composing for years. This adventure, this journey of self-discovery requires some unlikely tools, and Magorium provides one. And until she realizes what it is and how to use it she can only sink deeper into a youthful cynicism. She descends into the "justness" of the "just" person. But in the nick of time she figures it out, and with the help of the now "believing is seeing" Mutant she rises to the occasion. Eric gets a friend. The store lives on.
Magorium sells a humanistic message that we have a sparkle inside, a potential we have not realized. By believing in ourself we can self-actualize the magic inside. Although this message is positive and affirming, biblically there is more to achieving our potential than self-belief. To attain our fullest potential, we must first come alive. The Bible says we are all dead in sin (Eph 2:1) and need a new birth (Jn 3:16). Once we have that new birth, we can move toward our full potential as we grow in Christ (2 Pet 3;18). And growing in Christ is believing in Jesus and following him actively. So, to find the "magic" inside, we believe in Jesus to get us there, not ourselves. It is Him, not us.
But there is a positive ethic in Magorium. When we look around us, what do we see? Are we simply looking at things as they are? There is an invisible reality all around us, the spiritual realm. There is also the potential inside each of us. If we are Jesus-followers, we have the potential, which will be realized at death, of becoming like Jesus (1 Jn 3:2). If we are not Jesus-followers, we will either choose life in Jesus or death outside of him. There is that potential, and we can "see" this and hence interact in ways that reflect this future choice. How are we approaching interactions with people? Is it in ways that will affirm their potential? Or are we cynically seeing everything and everyone as they are now, with no opportunity for growth or change? Are we seeing or are we believing?
Magorium uses the four "generations" of the main characters to push a message of the value of the innate openness and wonder in children. Eric has it still at 12. Mahoney is in danger of losing it at 23. Mutant has definitely lost it (as a 30-ish accountant). And Mr Magorium clearly has it at his outlandish age. This reflects, unwittingly, the biblical truth (Matt 18:3) that we must adopt a child-like faith to be a follower of Jesus and hence to be able to "see reality."
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs.