The gifted scribe Zach Helm, who penned Marc Forster's serio/meta comedy “Stranger Than Fiction,” makes a so-so feature directorial debut with “Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium,” a special-effects fantasy-fable that's strictly children fare, as indicated by its producer, Fox-Walden, and G-rating.
Hopes for a viable franchise would depend on the commercial response to this occasionally charming but not entirely satisfying fantasy. Unlike most series, this fable is not based on a prestigious literary source (“Harry Potter,” “Chronicles of Narnia,” “Lord of the Rings,” the upcoming “Golden Compass: His Dark Materials.” However, like the above, it centers on a young protag, here a boy (Zach Mills), who narrates the book-like saga.
Titular character is Mr. Magorium, played by Dustin Hoffman in a goofy, weird mode, as a 243-year-old owner of a colorful toy store, desperate to find a worthy successor. The role seems to be inspired by countless eccentric or mad scientists before him–just look at Hoffman's hairdo, makeup, and wardrobe–most specifically Willy Wonka.
The rather slender and derivative plot relates how the weirdo senior citizen but still energetic Magorium wishes to pass on the torch to the next generation, represented by his appealing protg Mahoney, played in a different style by Natalie Portman. It's not clear whether the current store-manager Mahoney, a former gifted piano player, is ready and able enough for the job.
Underpopulated in characters, the saga also includes Eric (Zach Mills), a shy, maladjusted boy, who spends his time playing, or rather communicating, with animals, both live and stuffed. As a misfit and loner, lacking any friends, Eric could have easily populated one of Tim Burton's whimsical fantasies. He's the kind of boy that would later evolve into the “child-adult” characters that Johnny Depp played as a youngster.
The little tension that prevails is in the encounters with Henry (Jason Bateman), an accountant who's asked to inspect and reassess the store's market properties. Seemingly stuffy and lacking in appreciation of the magic that the store holds for its customers (and employers), Henry nonetheless reveals a warmer heart later on, which follows the conventions of such generic creations.
Also predictable are the toys and animals' anthropomorphic tendencies: They can–and do– assume a life of their own. As such, they recalling similar touches in Barry Levinson's “Toys,” the “Babe” movies, Burton's own “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and many others.
Either lacking the requisite skills (this is his first-time assignment) and/or the right approach for imbuing such text with energy, director Helm can't decide how whimsical and childish (or childlike) his movie should be, resulting in a sporadically engaging tale, marked by uneven (not always credible) lingo and a tonal mood that often changes from scene to scene.
Lack of unified vision also results in the film's disparate acting styles. Hoffman, encouraged by his makeup and hair, overacts with a distinctive singsong lisp. Years back, Hoffman acknowledged in an interview that he had always wanted to play Willy Wonka, the part that Johnny Depp landed three years ago. An iconoclastic actor, Hoffman plays Magorium as a child with strange speech patterns that are reportedly based on impersonations of a bird.
In contrast, Natalie Portman underacts, and it's too bad that her underwhelming work here follows another disappointing picture, Milos Forman's “Goya's Ghosts.” Surprisingly, there is not much chemistry between these two talented thespians, who sometimes seem to occupy the space of a different movie, or different sections of the same store.
Though professionally mounted, by technical standards of such fare, with Burton's features setting the high standards, “Mr. Magorium” is also lacking. End result is a strained effort to evoke a magical kingdom as a desirable escape for either kids or adults.
Ironically, though Helm claims credit for writing a movie that's not based on previously published material or pre-existing toys and videogames, “Mr. Magorium” looks and sounds awfully familiar, and not always in a positive way. To be fair, he should have acknowledged that his story is “inspired” by “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” since it tells a very similar story.