Genial and G-rated, this fantasy from screenwriter/first-time director Zach Helm (“Stranger Than Fiction”) sprinkles in charming moments but ultimately doesn’t evoke enough wonderment to overcome its tongue-twisting title and completely win over adults along with kids. Given the dearth of quality family fare, Fox and Walden might drum up nice business, but holiday shoppers at this emporium should be advised that the merchandise is limited in scope and ambition and thus more suited to the specialty realm than franchise-oriented spectacle.
Consciously aspiring to a fairy-tale feel, “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” deserves credit not so much for originality but simply for being original, as opposed to derived from a book, toy or game. (Several real toys, such as Slinky, are incorporated into the action, but this mercifully isn’t one of those movies where the licensing cart seems to be dragging the horse.)
As if to cement its storybook credentials, the movie is partitioned into chapters and narrated by a young boy (“Hollywoodland’s” Zach Mills) in “Once upon a time” fashion.
Beginning in the middle, we’re introduced to Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), the 243-year-old proprietor of a wondrous toy store. With a hairdo borrowed from Christopher Lloyd’s “Back to the Future” mad scientist, Magorium is cheerfully planning to depart this plane and pass the baton of responsibility to his protege Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a one-time piano prodigy who has found refuge managing the shop. The emporium is also frequented by young Eric (Mills), a quiet and awkward kid with a fondness for hats but no real friends his age.
Into this whimsical world Magorium summons Henry (Jason Bateman), an accountant charged with determining the store’s value. Like the mom in “E.T.,” Henry either can’t see or isn’t open to the magic all around him, from the owner’s pet zebra to the stuffed animals that playfully assume a life of their own.
The idea of toys coming to life is hardly a novel one, any more than is a fanciful character (think Willy Wonka) seeking an heir to perpetuate his life’s endeavors. Helm nevertheless approaches the material with a strong sense of conviction, trying to convey the emporium’s magic through a child’s eyes while providing heart-warming dialogue that deals, albeit gently, with such fundamental issues as celebrating life and embracing death as merely the next grand adventure.
The movie sputters, though, to the extent its key players (and there are just four) and situations come across as slightly half-baked, including the unconvincing prospect that the emporium might be in real jeopardy in Mahoney’s care. Just as her self-doubts about soldiering on without Magorium don’t entirely compute, the same goes for Henry, whose big heart is barely concealed beneath a slightly stuffed shirt.
Portman is appropriately waif-like and winsome, while Hoffman brings considerable warmth to the pivotal role, as merry as Scrooge on Christmas morning. Yet with his cartoony voice that at times irritatingly sounds inspired by Paul Winchell’s dummy Knucklehead, a little of Magorium goes a long way, including his zany penchant (adopted by Mahoney and Eric) for calling Henry “Mutant” because, to him, it’s a handy substitute for “accountant.”
Nor does the movie conjure much technical wizardry until the climactic sequence — a moment buoyantly punctuated by Alexandre Desplat and Aaron Zigman’s score — despite the inviting combination of anthropomorphic toys and appreciative wide-eyed children.
“Mr. Magorium” unabashedly yearns to rouse the child in all of us, and it’s easy to root for such amiable intentions. Where the movie finally falls short is in the gap between telling you a miraculous place exists and actually making you feel as if you’ve gone there.