If you represented the estate of Roald Dahl and were in a litigious mood, you might just bring suit against the makers of this family flick about a Willy Wonka-like toy store magnate, which appears to owe a great deal to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” On the other hand, you might consider the existence of “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” beneficial, not simply because slavish imitation is a form of flattery, but because by comparison to it even a mediocre version of Dahl’s tale like Tim Burton’s recent adaptation looks pretty good. Whatever you think of the two “Chocolate Factory” movies, at least they both retained the acerbic undertone Dahl spiked the original tale with. But Zach Helm’s picture is so bland and soft-toned that it’s hard to imagine that anybody beyond the toddler stage will find it the land of enchantment it so strenuously aspires to be.
The story focuses on the titular shop, where the 243-year old Magorium (Dustin Hoffman, acting like everybody’s crazily lovable old uncle) presides over a magical collection of toys which attract a small army of kids daily. His assistant is the spunky Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman, trying desperately to seem cheeky), a former piano prodigy (like the kid in “Shine,” her specialty was the Rachmaninoff Second) who’s now perpetually stumped about how to finish the concerto she’s composing (from what we hear of it, she really shouldn’t bother—it sounds like elevator music). And a constant presence is little Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills, less irresistible than the director thinks), a tyke who collects hats and works the store like an old pro but has no friends apart from Magorium and Molly.
Into this happy, carnival-like atmosphere Mr. Magorium throws a sharp curve when he announces his imminent departure—his time has come, you see—and hires a buttoned-down accountant named Henry (Jason Bateman, acting like something out of a 1950s “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” scenario) to inventory the place. (To give you an idea of the caliber of verbal humor on display here, we’re supposed to find it hilarious that everyone, following Magorium’s impish lead, refers to Henry as “Mutant” rather than “Accountant.”) Thus starts a crisis in which the store itself rebels, turning gray and dank, and Mahoney protests her inability to keep it going herself. Will Magorium really “leave”? Will Eric lose the only place he feels truly at home? Or Henry learn to loosen up and show he’s really an old softie—and Molly’s natural partner?
Let’s just say there’s not much suspense about how matters turn out. Or much magic in the telling. None of the performers are really engaging—Hoffman, who resembles the goofy host of a TV program aimed at preschoolers, is especially irritating with his lispy delivery of nonsense lines, but that’s only because the colorless Portman, mugging Mills and laid-back Bateman are less noticeable. And the effects are less than stellar. The toy store setting is curiously cramped, and the stuff within it colorful but largely unimpressive, which might also be said of Roman Osin’s cinematography. Even the score, attributed to the usually imaginative Alexandre Desplat (though only by half—his collaborator was Aaron Zigman), seems uncharacteristically generic.
So very young children might enjoy a visit to Mr. Magorium’s, but most everyone else will probably prefer a quick exit.