Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is the 243 year-old proprietor of the strangest, most wonderful toy store in the world. His Wonder Emporium is a fantastical toy haven where everything, including the store itself, comes to life. Amidst this cavalcade of marvels, Mr. Magorium suddenly announces he will hand over the reigns of his magical store to his reluctant young manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). As a youngster Molly was a gifted and acclaimed concert pianist. Now in her twenties she feels lost, struggling to compose the great symphony she was once expected to write, her self-confidence withering away. As a sceptical accountant named Henry (Jason Bateman) arrives to audit the store, the emporium throws a temper tantrum, losing its all its colour and sparkle, while the playful toys turn quiet and grey. Only Molly and Henry can revive the emporium, with the aid of a lonely, but resourceful little boy (Zach Mills).
A charming confection, right from its brightly coloured opening credits, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium arrives bursting at the seams with off-kilter ideas and could go on to become a children’s classic. Debut director Zach Helm (who wrote the similarly oddball, Stranger than Fiction (2006)) doesn’t always imbue the narrative with enough oomph, but his screenplay tackles surprisingly weighty themes including death, wasted lives, self-belief, and the twenty-something malaise. What at first seems to be the slightest of plots, proves to be a clever and original series of set-pieces adopting the structure of a child’s pop-up storybook. Refreshingly free of crassness and cynicism, it is a brave family film that actually believes in hope and innocence and features no villains whatsoever. It reminds one of Hayao Miyazaki’s masterly Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), which tells a similar tale of a young woman’s rite of passage, discovering magic within herself. Children drawn to conflict/action-based movies might grow impatient and reach for their Transformers DVDs, but grown-ups and youngsters who persevere will find much to savour. Among its delights: a cameo from Kermit the Frog, a sock monkey that wants to be hugged, wild zebras and toy dinosaurs running amok, and Natalie Portman conducting a symphony of magic (and briefly transforming into a stop-motion puppet).
The movie boasts sprightly performances from Dustin Hoffman, mimicking comic actor Ed Wynn, whom you may remember from Mary Poppins (1964), and the ever-adorable Natalie Portman, channelling a young Julie Andrews. Newcomer Zach Mills shows promise, although the film denies us a satisfactory pay-off to his long search for acceptance. Jason Bateman does very well with a stock kids’ movie character: the disbeliever. Yet refreshingly, Henry’s sceptical, conservative demeanour never reduce him to a bad guy. Bateman displays some agreeably Monty Pythonesque lunacy in a scene where he pretends to be a medieval peasant.
But this is Hoffman and Portman’s show, two actors who can do so much with a gesture or a glance, and they spark brilliantly off each other. There is a clear affection evident in their characters’ easygoing banter. Molly leading Magorium through his perfect, final day on this earth and the moment the old man bids farewell to his beloved toy store, are incredibly emotional scenes liable to leave you teary-eyed. Though uncertain direction leaves it lagging in pep, the movie overflows with fun, wonder and heart. An effects whizzed-up tribute to the children’s films of yesteryear, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is a wonderful place to be.