Effects that are special in story with a sugar surplus

Posted: November 16, 2007

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is the greatest toy store in the universe and the subject of a candy-colored movie confected with obvious care.

Yet the family-friendly film presents the viewer with a paradox that not even Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), the 243-year-old proprietor of his self-titled wonderland, could explain.

The sight of a store that has mood swings is charming. Harlequinish Hoffman is charming - to a point. Impish Natalie Portman, as his clerk, is charming. Ditto Jason Bateman, the accountant examining the books. But these agreeable elements add up to a uniquely charmless experience.

Some filmmakers gild the lily; with Magorium, Writer/director Zach Helm caramel-coats the sugarplum. His toothache-inducing film should come with fluoride.

Scribe of the enchanting Stranger Than Fiction, Helm makes his directorial debut here with a story that is likewise a life-affirming allegory of a numbers guy who learns the value of magic. (It's also about an immortal, Mr. Magorium, who greets death like an old friend.)

In this G-rated movie the effects are gee-whiz, with live giraffes amid the stuffed animals and bouncy balls so manic that they could use some Ritalin. The production design, however, gloriously realized by Therese DePrez, effectively upstages the characters. (Kids, especially those who don't require a coherent narrative, will voraciously gobble up the visuals.)

Perhaps thinking in pictures led Helm to clutter his screen with TMVI - too much visual information. Magorium is a shoe fetishist, Eric (Zach Mills), a young emporium customer, is a hat collector, waifish Molly (Portman) a musician stalled in composing her symphony.

My guess is that Helm conceived this film with its four principals as movements in his own cinematic symphony, and that he, too, got stalled before the ending.

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium ** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Zach Helm. With Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman.

Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hour, 34 mins.

Parents' Guide: G

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/.

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