Children's fantasies like Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium are a delicate proposition, because the whimsical elements that sustain them can also be their undoing. Even then, it's a matter of taste. Usually, there needs to be some sort of darkness or creepiness or weirdness to keep the sugar-rush under wraps, as there is in some of Magorium's more obvious influences, such as Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, or Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Yet there's none of that necessary tension in Zach Helm's curiously airless directorial debut, which floats along on the expectation that a magical toy store will somehow make a magical movie, with few flourishes necessary. Helm's screenplay for Stranger Than Fiction was scorned in some circles as "Charlie Kaufman lite," but here, the cribbing from children's classics seems more blatant, like he's trying to pass off Roald Dahl's hand-me-downs as his own design.
With apologies due to Willy Wonka, a mush-mouthed and sometimes unintelligible Dustin Hoffman plays the 234-year-old proprietor of a wondrous toy store that wouldn't be out of place in Harry Potter's Diagon Alley. After centuries of delighting children with his eccentric creations, Hoffman has decided that it's time to retire, and he intends to pass the store along to its manager, Natalie Portman. As a frustrated piano prodigy mere notes away from finishing her first composition, Portman doesn't see herself running the place forever, and the store itself goes haywire over the possible transfer of power. Meanwhile, Hoffman hires an accountant (Jason Bateman) to take stock of its bizarre financial inner workings, and the buttoned-down stranger soon gets caught up in the gizmo-laden enchantment of it all.
So who is Zach Helm, anyway? He's been hailed as a prodigiously talented young writer, but two films into his career, it's hard to see much beyond a gift for mimicry. Bateman's character is more or less the same as Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction, give or take a few obsessive-compulsive habits, but the rest of Mr. Magorium has a familiarity that breeds contempt. The idea of a toy store as a living, responsive being is a good one, but Helm doesn't take that idea to imaginative places; just having a bunch of inanimate objects zipping around the room only technically qualifies as magical. The one happy side effect of the film's lack of energy is that it won't result in a raging headache, but that isn't much of an endorsement.