Midway through Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, Molly Mahoney, played by Natalie Portman, explains to the eponymous Magorium that as a child, people marveled at her potential as a classical pianist -- but now that she's an adult, people are still waiting for her to fulfill that potential. That, in a nutshell, sums up Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium -- a movie with its heart in the right place, but one that never quite lives up to its promise.
Mr. Magorium, played by a frazzle-haired Dustin Hoffman, is the 243-year-old owner of the Wonder Emporium, a magical toy shop where young and old alike have come to be dazzled for 113 years. A sort of Willy Wonka/Pee Wee Herman hybrid, he is the very definition of eccentric, sleeping upside down and whipping up batches of turnip pudding when the urge strikes.
When Magorium comes to realize his time upon this mortal coil is drawing to a close, he decides to will his store to Mahoney, and to facilitate the transfer, hires a straightlaced accountant, Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), to help the process along. The store, however, isn't pleased with this turn of events and begins "acting out." To make matters worse, Mahoney doesn't believe she has what it takes to take over for Magorium, and the vibrant, primary-colored store begins to blacken as the joy and magic slowly drain away.
The importance of childlike imagination and belief in the impossible has a long and honorable history in film. Everything from Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Secondhand Lions have staked their claim to the theme to some degree or other, and Mr. Magorium clearly strives to join those ranks.
The trouble is that despite some wonderful moments scattered throughout the film, there are enough false notes to break the viewers' sense of disbelief and disrupt the carefully-constructed fantasy world that exists within the friendly confines of the toy shop. A large part of the problems rests with Zach Helm, the writer of the film, and also first-time director. Helm scripted the wonderfully understated and clever Stranger Than Fiction, the only Will Ferrell movie I've ever actually liked, and the writing on Magorium is nicely whimsical with clever touches scattered throughout.
But as a director, Helm coaxes wildly uneven performances out of his stellar cast. Hoffman's character is more an affect than effective until late in the film, and young Zach Mills, playing 9-year-old friendless hat collector Eric, struggles to come across as a real child. Instead, Eric's penchant for 50-cent words and fervent belief in magic frames him as a proto-Magorium, but he never seems to get the direction he needs in order to sell it.
And Natalie Portman, the geeks' heartthrob who can be awe-inspiring in one movie and abysmal the next manages to pull off both in the same role. Portman's Mahoney is painfully heartfelt as the prodigy who can't escape her own shadow, unconsciously fingering piano keys as she struggles to find her way through life. The other half of the time, however, she delivers -- and receives -- every line with a silly grin on her face, as if she were deeply amused by her participation in this film and eagerly awaiting the next comedic non-sequitur to spout from Magorium's lips.
Portman's not the only one to suffer from this affliction, however, as Rebecca Northan, playing Eric's mother, hardly delivers a line without a bemused smile. It's annoying, frankly, and condescending, as if the actors themselves don't believe in what the film's saying.
Jason Bateman, however, wholly avoids these pitfalls and delivers a sterling performance. The one-time child star and former lead of the ensemble series Arrested Development takes what could be the thankless role of the straight man -- derisively nicknamed "The Mutant," the token non-believer in magic -- and crafts a richly-nuanced character that has depth, substance and even heart. He never upstages any of his co-actors but when he finally gets his showcase scene -- when Eric shows him his hat collection -- Bateman makes the most of it, showing that he is still a kid at heart, capable of imagination to spare. That scene along should have half of Hollywood's casting directors knocking down Bateman's door, and if they don't, more's the pity.
One of the rare G-rated films to grace the silver screens of America, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is mercifully free of fart jokes, football-in-the-groin, potty-mouthed urchins and assorted bodily functions that are ubiquitous in what passes for family entertainment today. The film is gentle and harmless, with even death handled with subtlety and symbolism. It's a movie aimed squarely at children who haven't yet lost their sense of wonder, and those same children will likely find it equally appealing.
Despite occasional forays into saccharine sentimentality, it's not a bad movie for parents, either. The toughest part is catching glimpses of what this movie could've been, but not even Mr. Magorium himself has enough magic to fix that.