Almost Doctor Who: Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Film This late noughties slice of post-Wonka wimsey wasn’t well received on released, largely by disappointed reviewers clutching their nostalgic memories of director Robert Stevenson’s bursts of Disney confection, the magical fantasy of Mary Poppins and Bednobs and Broomsticks. Despite that, this story of Dustin Hoffman’s titular ancient magician training his composer employee, Molly Mahoney, sparkly played by Natalie Portman, to take over the running of his toy shop is the kind of film that deserves to be rediscovered, not least because the script is one of the most literate and passionate of the noughties.

If you’ve not seen the film, I’d urge you to seek it out now then come back again because necessarily there will be spoilers. It’s best watched as I did without much foreknowledge, the series title for this new run of articles more than enough. Part of the problem some people have had is that writer/director Zach Helm (who also penned Stranger Than Fiction) is so determined not explain the origins of Mr. Magorium or his shop and the need for the unfolding circumstances, the viewer left to imagine whatever the back story might be. For some this was a distraction. But I had an easy answer.

Mr. Magorium is a Time Lord. As he says in the film he’s 243 years old, small fry in comparison to the Doctor perhaps, but not bad longevity. Like the Doctor he’s a kind of magician, absent minded and above all wants to please the children. Unlike the Doctor he doesn’t seem too concerned with getting messed up in the world’s problems, though the Doctor is quite unique in that regard. He adores humanity but doesn’t really understand us or our customs as we discover in the charming sequence when Molly takes him out into the world. His clothes are at once contemporary yet don’t quite fit, which is very nu-Who.

He says some very Doctorish things. Try:
“I fell so completely in love with these shoes, I bought enough pairs to last my whole lifetime. This is my last pair.”
“We Breathe. We Pulse. We Regenerate. Our hearts beat. Our minds create. Our souls ingest. Thirty-seven seconds, well used, is a lifetime.”
The Wonder Emporium is his TARDIS. Like Professor Chronotis’s TARDIS in the Douglas Adams penned story, Shada, it has transformed itself to mimic part of the architecture of its environment and though initially the external and internal size seem to reflect each other, there are sections, like the ball room, which inexplicably exist outside of normal space. He even talks about it changing location. When Mr. Magorium dies (presumably having reached the end of his regenerative cycle) the toy shop turns grey and fades too, the link between him and it having been broken.

Molly Mahoney is his companion, though more in the manic pixie dream girl realm of Susan or Amy Pond than Jo Grant. Magorium teaches her about the world and she’s the one he’s forever trying to impress. But like many of the Doctor’s companions she’s also the one who’s the public face on whatever madness and baggage he’s carrying around with him and the only one who can tell him off or tell him to stop. Jason Bateman’s accountant Henry Weston (nickname “the Mutant”) is the rarer third wheel figure, the Harry Sullivan, Mickey or Rory standing on the edge of this odd relationship, staying as detached as they can until they become caught up in the lunacy themselves.

Searching for confirmation online, I’ve found little in Zach Helm’s publicity interviews to suggest a direct connection. He mentions his influences in this piece at Movie Maker, saying that Magorium is based on a vaudeville joke though a bit more complex than that. Helm also says that he was fired as the writer on the film and someone else came in to rewrite the script he was directing, so perhaps some of this is from that mystery person. Either way, it’s certainly worth reassessment in this light. It’s impossible for me not to look this speech which might have been transcribed from a 90s Eighth Doctor novel and is one of my favourite comments on this particular play I’ve read anywhere:
"When King Lear dies in Act V, do you know what Shakespeare has written? He's written "He dies." That's all, nothing more. No fanfare, no metaphor, no brilliant final words. The culmination of the most influential work of dramatic literature is "He dies." It takes Shakespeare, a genius, to come up with "He dies." And yet every time I read those two words, I find myself overwhelmed with dysphoria. And I know it's only natural to be sad, but not because of the words "He dies." but because of the life we saw prior to the words."

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