Midway through the amiable children's movie Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium comes a speech that writer-director Zach Helm probably has been saving for use ever since he discovered the Bard. As pop philosophy goes, it's bracing stuff: Paraphrasing King Lear, Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) — a 243-year-old "toy impresario" with shell-shocked hair, a purple suit, and an annoying lithp — lays it on the line for his grieving store manager, Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a presentable lass if stalled on all fronts professional and personal. Preparing her for his own carefully planned exit from this mortal coil, he tells Mahoney, nicely but firmly, that when we die, we just die.
This will be existential music to the ears of the sour or secular cranks among us who've had it up to here with the benignly bearded God-substitutes who spring fully formed out of every misty-eyed family movie this time of year. Still, we're not exactly talking Christopher Hitchens here. Having dropped the difficult news, Mr. M. follows up with the improving insight that what matters is belief and the life you make for yourself until the time comes to croak without fuss. With that, things grow tediously familiar.
Like most Christmas movies, Mr. Magorium's stocking comes stuffed with PSAs (albeit well-written ones by the current spiritless standards of the genre) alerting children to something they already know, namely that the world is plump with possibilities if only you trust in the magical power of your imagination. Naturally this falls on the deaf ears of the unfulfilled souls who most need to hear it: Mahoney, a former piano prodigy who knows her way around a Rachmaninoff concerto but can't seem to complete her own unfinished work; Eric (the appealing Zach Mills), a sensitive nine-year-old collector of kooky hats and very likely a stand-in for his creator; and the Mutant (Jason Bateman), a buttoned-down accountant who knows nothing of love or play.
All very sweet, but where do you take a movie without noticeable adversaries beyond the enemy within? Parceling out wisdom and unhinged happiness, Hoffman tries too hard for cute and comes off less adorable than he was when snuggling up to Lily Tomlin in I Heart Huckabees — or for that matter as the hermeneutically inclined English professor in Stranger than Fiction, which Helm also wrote. For her part, Portman, sporting a flannel shirt and a chopped-off boy-cut as if doing public penance for getting naked in the Wes Anderson short Hotel Chevalier, is about as delectable as soy ice cream, while Bateman seems not to have mastered the distinction between a bland character and a bland performance.
The only creature worth rooting for is the emporium itself, a charmingly anarchic showcase for misbehavior by the kind of handmade toys only scads of cutting-edge CGI could bring to life. When Mr. Magorium announces his intention of leaving the building, the colorful shop goes into an interesting gray funk and then loses it altogether in an orgy of slithering slinkies and careening wooden dinosaurs.
For sheer good nature, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium likely will earn better reviews than David Dobkin's energetically vulgar Fred Claus, which also deals with transcendence in toyland. Helm's storytelling is more tasteful, for what that's worth, but his pacing is as pallid as his palette is vivid, the slack story poorly structured around a few listless chapters, with a score that coyly features a number written by Yusuf Islam and performed by Cat Stevens. For a movie that celebrates wonder and strangeness, the whole enterprise feels half-baked.
In Stranger than Fiction, Helm, who is all of 32 years old, showed a promisingly unhealthy obsession with death. The Grim Reaper shows up again in Mr. Magorium, only now he's such a friendly fellow it hardly seems worth putting up a struggle.
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