A Wacky 'Wonder Emporium'

This photo provided by Fox Walden shows Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman in a scene from "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium." (AP Photo/Fox Walden)
AP Photo/Fox
You'd have to be a really little kid, young enough to be enthralled by colorful, shiny objects and oblivious to the necessity of character development, to want to hang out at "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium."

With wild hair and an annoying accent, Dustin Hoffman looks completely uncomfortable as the titular impresario, a childlike eccentric who doesn't just sell toys but whose store is a living being with feelings.

Now, at age 243, he decides it's time to leave (read: die, inexplicably) and hand the keys over to store manager Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman in full-on pixie mode), a former piano prodigy who's stuck creatively. (Ah, the irony - she works at a place that encourages creativity!) Only Mahoney doesn't feel ready for the challenge, and the store throws a temper tantrum to keep Magorium from going.

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The whole endeavor feels like the love child of Willy Wonka and Pee-Wee Herman, the kind of movie Tim Burton would have executed with greater richness and dexterity. It's totally one-note in its incessant whimsy, except for those few moments when it treads awkwardly toward the topic of death. Magorium and Mahoney face the prospect of the great beyond by jumping up and down on mattresses at a mattress store and setting all the cuckoo clocks at a clock store to chime at the exact same moment.

Wake me when the wackiness is over.

2The most curious part is that this tongue-twister of a movie comes from Zach Helm, who previously wrote the clever, charming "Stranger Than Fiction" starring Will Ferrell (and costarring Hoffman, much more effectively). Here, Helm directs for the first time from a script he wrote when he was 23, inspired by his own experiences working at a toy store.

Helm may know this place intimately, but he feels the need to tell us repeatedly how magical the store is, and to have the characters tell each other. This becomes especially true with the arrival of Jason Bateman as Henry Weston, an uptight accountant who's come to assess the store's worth. (He essentially functions in the same sort of role as Kevin Spacey's efficiency expert in "Fred Claus" -- except, you know, without being evil -- and his comic skills go almost entirely to waste.)

Henry must be convinced of the emporium's powers; 9-year-old social misfit Eric Applebaum is just the guy for the job. Eric, who has a hat fetish and who visits the store daily because he has no friends, is played by Zach Mills, who appeared as Adrien Brody's son in "Hollywoodland" and shows some precocious likability here.

But his character, like all the others in the film, feels more like a collection of quirks than a real person. While Eric likes hats, for example, Magorium has a thing for shoes. Mahoney dresses in vintage T-shirts and mismatched skirts like some Brooklyn hipster who's trying hard to make it look as if she isn't trying so hard. The only one who ever evolves is Henry, the straight man, and we could see that transformation coming from the minute he hit the door.

"Mr. Magorium" is shot and lighted beautifully, however, the work of cinematographer Roman Osin ("Pride & Prejudice"). That'll be the one thing the wee ones and adults in the audience can agree upon.

"Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated G. Running time: 94 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman are the odd couple in charge of the magical toy store called "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium."