Dustin Hoffman reportedly wanted to play Willy Wonka, but that role went to Johnny Depp. Not to be outdone, Hoffman is the Wonka-like star of "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," a family film fantasia in which he plays a 243-year-old toy store owner who doesn't look a day over 65.
Making his directorial debut, the writer-director Zach Helm, who wrote "Stranger Than Fiction," has come up with a plot that, although ostensibly an original, seems consciously derived from scores of previous children's fables from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" to "Charlotte's Web" to "The Wizard of Oz." Because Helm makes no bones about his derivativeness, we are free to pick out the influences.
Of course, the greatest children's entertainments invent entirely new worlds, and this "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" does not suffice. One can take the cynical attitude that the kids seeing this film won't know about the books and movies Helm is lifting. But their parents will. Still, there's a pleasing modesty to this movie: It's practically an homage to its betters.
Mr. Edward Magorium started his toy-store business in the 1700s, and many of the toys in his emporium seem to date from that era. The goggle-eyed children who throng the store impart their wonderment to the toys, which acquire an animating life of their own – antique music boxes and brightly colored balls zoom about, Lincoln Logs and LEGOs assemble themselves. The store itself is a living, breathing organism, and when Magorium casually announces to his mousy manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), that he is "leaving the world," the walls of the store shrink and buckle and blacken. (The production design by Thérèse DePrez is extraordinary.)
Magorium has outlasted his final pair of shoes and so, believing his life is at an end, prepares to pass away. Molly, a would-be classical pianist, doesn't believe she has the right inner wonderment to take over the store. You can see where this is going: Magorium will hand down his homespun wisdom to her and she will find the right magic.
All this would be more effective if Portman was a more magical actress. She's actually better in this film than she has been in quite a while – I'm still recovering from her zombie-like turns in the "Star Wars" prequels – but she pushes too hard. It's possible she's too cerebral a performer to be convincingly carried away by whimsy.
Fortunately, the other actors are wonderfully silly. Hoffman's Mr. Magorium is a fantastic creation. With his frizzy nimbus of white hair and his collection of quirky suits and loud ties, Magorium is like a walking, talking cartoon character. Hoffman gives the toy master a halting, sing-song delivery – he sounds a bit like Ratso Rizzo crossed with "Rain Man." He conjures up a whole galaxy of befuddled vaudevillians, most especially Ed Wynn and Bert Lahr.
In some ways, Hoffman is operating on a more exalted plane than Helm. It's a transcendent performance in a not-quite transcendent movie. When Magorium spends his last day doing things he's never experiencing before, like using a pay phone, the sequence, instead of being a classic, falls flat.
Jason Bateman plays an accountant who is called into the store by Magorium to set things right, and his transformation from twit to dreamer is seamless. As the friendless but precocious 9-year-old Eric, Zach Mills has a wonderfully animated face and saucer eyes. Although it's unrealistic that such a sporty kid would be a loner, it makes sense that he would feel more comfortable with adults. He's the perfect counterpart to Magorium, and the true inheritor of his legacy. Eric is young-old; Magorium is old-young. At its best, the movie makes you feel like a kindred spirit. Grade: B+