“Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” an embrace-the-magic toy story, aims both to charm the buried child in jaded grownups and to entertain kids, but it will have to settle largely for the latter. In these days of Tim Burton, Pixar and Michel Gondry, among other superior fairy-tale weavers, this movie’s a few dollops short on the ideas, juice and dimension that it takes to make you believe.
Written and directed by “Stranger Than Fiction” screenwriter Zach Helm, the story involves a magical toy store where children’s spirit flows, balls bounce with abandon and stuffed animals hug humans, among other marvels. The proprietor, Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), is a 243-year-old wigged eccentric who suggests a mix of Willy Wonka and a mad scientist, central-casting style.
When he announces his plans to depart from this world and leave the shop in the hands of his protege, Mahoney (Natalie Portman), an unsure former piano prodigy, Mr. Magorium sends the entire store into turmoil. Toys malfunction. Brightly colored walls blacken.
Eric (Zach Mills), a 9-year-old misfit who believes in magic, and Henry (Jason Bateman), an awakening-bound accountant reminiscent of Will Ferrell’s orderly tax man in Helm’s earlier film, also figure into things.
It’s hard not to have some affection for this film. Although stories about toys with independent psyches aren’t new, Helm’s movie contains enough G-rated whimsy to please kids, as well as some fresh material with a broader appeal — the store throwing a tantrum; Mr. Magorium doing a jig on some bubble wrap. Mr. Magorium’s shelves, while not devoid of trade names, contain some intriguing-looking novelties.
Unfortunately, though, there is more to a feature film than effects and cuteness, and Helm, making his directorial debut and showing less screenwriter intricacy this time around, delivers weakly in the story and character arena. The tone’s bland and inconsistent. Little tension exists over whether the store, which Mahoney considers selling, will survive. Mr. Magorium and Mahoney share no compelling mentor-pupil dynamics. Such shortcomings inevitably sink the film to the status of a lukewarm curiosity.
As for Mr. Magorium himself, the normally reliable Hoffman can’t work wonders with a character who is presented as little more than old, eccentric, and man-child-like. Given nowhere interesting to take us, and possessing a goofy lisp and demeanor, he’s irksome.
Portman, meanwhile, is stuck in a predictable role that allows her to be simply likable. For what it’s worth, she delivers.
Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman, Zach Mills
Written and directed by Zach Helm
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes