Tiny and almost gingerbread-like on the outside, boundless on the inside, the titular toy store of "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" is indeed a magical place. A sort of organic, anthropomorphized FAO Schwarz, the emporium is redolent of simpler times with its emphasis on low-fi, nostalgia-inducing toys such as Slinkies and Legos, along with plenty of unique enchantments. A whir of activity and color, it beckons to young and old to surrender to their most innocent beliefs.
The movie marks the feature directing debut of screenwriter Zach Helm ("Stranger Than Fiction") who was inspired by a part-time toy store job he held while in college and by cultural influences as disparate as Rene Magritte, the Marx Brothers, Samuel Beckett and the Muppets (Kermit even has a cameo). While endearingly heartfelt and G-rated to boot, its storytelling suffers from a lack of locomotive force and characters that feel disappointingly two-dimensional.
The gently amusing tale turns on the announcement by the well-preserved 243-year-old Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) that it is time for him to leave after a proprietorship of 113 years. In preparation for his departure he hires a buttoned-down accountant, Henry (Jason Bateman), to determine the monetary value of the store before he turns it over to his devoted store manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). Magorium, who is capable of finding whimsy in the unlikeliest of places, determines that "accountant" is a derivative of "counting" and "mutant" and the latter becomes Henry's moniker around the emporium.
The elfin Mahoney is in the midst of what might be termed a quarter-life crisis. At 23, she feels "stuck," having yet to live up to her promise as a piano prodigy and concerned that life is passing her by as she sees her college classmates moving on with their lives. Mr. Magorium's pronouncement of her as his heir, a task she feels wholly unprepared for, only adds to her anxiety.
And she's not the only one expressing her doubts. The store itself behaves like a wounded organism when one of its colorful walls begins oozing a gray mold that threatens to take over once Mr. Magorium is gone. If Mahoney doesn't discover the magic within, the store is as good as dead.
Helm structures the story into fairy tale-style chapters, narrated by Eric (Zach Mills), a lonely 9-year-old who prefers to pass his time helping out in the store as opposed to playing with kids his own age. Other than serving as a reminder that most of us lose our sense of wonder the further we move from childhood, Eric is never fully integrated into the story.
Beneath shrubby eyebrows and upswept hair, Hoffman is, at times, impishly charming. But Magorium feels more like a collection of eccentric ticks and mannerisms who slips in the occasional life lesson amid a stream of non-sequiturs than a fully realized character. One can almost imagine Hoffman, a la Michael Dorsey in "Tootsie," building Magorium up bit by bit as the makeup, wig and false teeth were applied, then perfecting the affected, lispy intonation to complete the transformation.
Though the movie's magic is vividly wrought, especially in the climax -- by director of photography Roman Osin, production designer Therese DePrez, costume designer Christopher Hargadon, visual effects designer Kevin Tod Haug and editors Sabrina Plisco and Steven Weis- berg -- the story never quite matches up.
Batting around some of the same loosely existential themes that interested him in "Stranger Than Fiction," Helm puts forth an admirably optimistic perspective on varied aspects of adulthood.
However, as the primary dramatic engine, Mahoney's predicament is not a terribly compelling scenario. Anyone over a certain age is going to find a 23-year-old impatiently spinning her wheels while she wrestles with insecurity to be a common, if less than gripping, phase of life.
Youngsters, who figure to make up the vast majority of the audience, may find her lack of a more tangible goal tedious. After all, it's not like she's trying to get back to Kansas or blow up the Death Star.
"Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium." MPAA rating: G. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In general release.