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If you’ve seen the trailers for Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, you probably noticed it bears a resemblance to Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Or Johnny Depp’s remake, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Or, perhaps more accurately, Troy McClure’s “The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.” In other words, this Dustin Hoffman-led tale of wonderment looked not only like a rip-off but a pretty bad one at that, and you might have guessed that subtlety was not going to be one of its strengths.
But it’s rated G, and everyone knows kids are dumb, so maybe they need to be hit over the head when they go to the movies. The film’s promise lies in its creator, Zach Helm, who makes his directorial debut here but also wrote 2006’s unusual, excellent Stranger Than Fiction. No dice: Although the film deals with worthy subjects—death, appreciating life as a gift, believing in yourself—it too-cutely glosses over the first while strenuously emphasizing the second and third. The result, for all its swirly colors and surrealism, is alternately dull and irritating, an experience akin to learning that you’re going on a field trip only to discover that it’s to the box factory.
Hoffman’s performance is, unsurprisingly, a significant reason the movie fails. As the 243-year-old proprietor of a magical toy store, he affects a lisp and tight smile to match his wild hair and eyebrows. He’s not childlike—he’s childish and dopey, with none of the deliciously dark weirdness of either Wilder’s or Depp’s Wonkas. The plot involves Magorium’s “departure”: He’s choosing to die because he’s on his last pair of a lifetime supply of his favorite shoes. He wants to leave the store to his manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a piano prodigy who actually has been wanting to quit because she feels stuck, unable play like she used to as a kid. The store, a living thing whose toys animate themselves each morning and whose rooms can be changed with a dial, doesn’t like this plan and rebels by turning its bright walls gray and having its merchandise malfunction.
In addition to the always-happy Magorium and self-doubting Mahoney, there’s a humorless accountant (Jason Bateman) and a boy who doesn’t know how to make friends (Zach Mills). Gee, do you think they’ll each learn a lesson by the time the story’s through? Yes, a million times over, and every instance in which the script’s life-is-grand message is repeated is accompanied by the kind of incessantly crescendoing score that slimes holiday movies. It’s not quite terrible; the main character’s demise, however sugar-coated, is touching, Mahoney’s quarter-life crisis is sympathetic, and OK, some of the toys are pretty cool. But it’s never nearly as enchanting as Helm intended, which makes his foray into children’s entertainment an ironic failure.