Wonder of wonders, here's a family film that is actually magical. In these days of slickly packaged fantasy, "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" sparkles with genuine whimsy.
Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) is an eccentric toy-store owner and self-described "avid shoe wearer" whose palatial, brightly colored emporium resembles F.A.O. Schwartz as reimagined by Rube Goldberg with a dash of Dr. Seuss. His emporium is a kiddie heaven, a place where fantasy bends the laws of reality. Paper airplanes really fly; balls bounce by themselves; and wooden dinosaurs play Frisbee.
The store is managed by the pixie-ish Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a would-be composer who believes in Magorium's magic, if not her own. She is occasionally helped by Eric (Zach Mills), a shy, serious 9-year-old boy who collects kooky hats and wishes he could make friends.
Everything seems to be wonderful -- except one day, Mr. Magorium announces he is "leaving." After a lifetime of 243 years, he feels his time is up. After all, he's on his last pair of beloved Tuscan leather shoes.
That means it's up to Mahoney (no one calls her Molly) to run things, only she won't accept that Mr. Magorium is dying, not even when he hires a stuffy accountant (Jason Bateman) to appraise the store's assets.
Then, this inventive film becomes truly magical, balancing a seriocomic acceptance of death with each character's personal voyage of self-discovery. As Mr. Magorium prepares to die (explaining the inevitability of death with a moving ode to the simplicity of Shakespeare's "King Lear"), Mahoney slowly learns to let him go. Eric, meanwhile, works up the nerve to talk to other people, making friends with the befuddled accountant, Henry, who eventually rediscovers the magic of make-believe.
As assembled by screenwriter and director Zach Helm, "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" achieves a sense of wonder while never descending into the bathetic cliches of the family blockbuster. Helm tackles big themes (death, growing up, self-worth, courage) with a deft, literate hand. How many other family films reference "King Lear" and feature adorable sock monkeys at the same time?
Dustin Hoffman brings winsome gravitas to the role of Mr. Magorium, whom he plays as a cross of Rain Man and Mary Poppins. His Magorium is bursting with life, a man who gleefully helps a child reach her favorite toy after pondering his own death just moments ago. His simple, poignant delivery of the words, "I'm leaving," delivered with a rueful smile, is a masterpiece of understated acting.
The beautiful Natalie Portman certainly looks the part of the elfin Mahoney, although she can't match Hoffman's emotional depth. She gamely tries to make Mahoney likable, although her final, joyous revelation isn't quite convincing.
Portman is not the most convincing heroine, and those commercial tie-ins are a bit heavy-handed, but it's an enjoyable, moving family film nonetheless.
MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman
DIRECTOR: Zach Helm
RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes
RATING: G. Features some mildly scary toys.
THE LOWDOWN: A timid apprentice must learn to believe in herself to fill the shoes of Mr. Magorium, her magical mentor.