No rabbit in this hat

‘Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium’ pulls out a sparkly nothing out of its bag of magic tricks.

by Sara Nicole Miller

A magical toy store. A 243-year-old “toy impresario” named Mr. Magorium. A room specifically devoted to bouncy balls. How could anyone possibly screw up these tidbits of child movie-making genius?

“Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”

STARRING: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman and Zach Mills
SHOWING AT: Area theaters

Unfortunately, someone did. Severely. In “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” unfortunately, not even the most cleverly engineered characters or zany whozits and whatzits can jazz up a plot in desperate need of a little basic storytelling.

Instead, it looks as though Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss and Willy Wonka were all pulverized in an industrial-strength blender with a lumpy mountain of Sweet’N Low – topped off with a pound of deep-fried, candy-coated disappointment.

Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), an allegedly 243-year-old toy store owner with wayward eyebrows and a pet zebra, is fixing to retire, and through a string of theatrical limericks, magic tricks and whimsical emotions, he wants to prepare his trusty protégé Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) for the day when Magorium departs this dear cosmos – and leaves her in charge.

However, both Mahoney and the store, a living, breathing, personified menagerie of gadgets and gizmos whose walls emulate skin-like characteristics, have a beef with Magorium’s abrupt departure. The store throws monumental temper tantrums while Mahoney, a child piano prodigy in a quarter-life rut, fights her own strains of ambivalence and inner demons.

Then throw in a tween toy lover named Eric, a square accountant called “Mutant” hired to sort out Magorium’s financial books and Bellini, a bald, mustachioed bookbuilder who lives in the basement and the narrative around Magorium’s retirement becomes a whole lotta fluff without a lotta heart. And to top it all off, “Mr. Magorium” is set in downtown Manhattan – representing the glassy, toy-unfriendly outside world both the narrative and Mr. Magorium fail to fit into.

Like any big-budget, wing-ding motion picture, “Mr. Magorium” flaunts an impressive array of special effects. The store is constantly buzzing and moving and creating: A real life fish mobile (and a frozen fish stick mobile as a discounted alternative), renegade bouncy balls of all sizes, a madhouse of stuffed animals, and a chorus of bad child actors as store customers.

Other than Hoffman and Portman’s endearing affinities for each other, formed around a naïve worldly view of the powers of magic, none of the characters are given access to their full potential. The story development, with its lousy narrative heartiness and proclivities toward the surface-skimming and über-cheesy, would fail to impress even the dimmest of pre-schoolers. Everything in the film is just so naïve and syrupy. Quick! Somebody get this movie a villain! A toy-loving Veruca Salt, maybe? That Lord Licorice from the Candyland board game, perchance? Any villain to stir up the pot would do, but unfortunately, there are no villans – or conflicts, for that matter – to speak of.

And that’s exactly why “Mr. Magorium” doesn’t fly. It simply doesn’t have that earthly push-and-pull, the allure of opposing forces or tortured souls or ground-shattering turning points. In short, it’s a wonder-less creation in a wonder-full genre. You’d have more fun browsing at your neighborhood toy store.