Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

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Many elements of “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” may indeed be swiped from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and there’s no question it has a terrible title. But I am utterly charmed by its imagination and sweetness, by its clever wizardry and inspired bizarreness — and by the fact that it never draws attention to its weirder details, preferring to let us notice them (or not) on our own.

Too many films, drunk on their own wackiness, are eager to make sure we know how wacky they are. When a boy in “Mr. Magorium” uses Lincoln Logs to make a life-size statue of Abraham Lincoln, I kept waiting for someone to say it. “Look! It’s Lincoln … made out of Lincoln Logs!” I felt a great smile spread across my face when the scene was over and no one had pointed it out.

I smiled a lot during “Mr. Magorium,” and laughed quite a bit, too. The directorial debut of Zach Helm (who also wrote last year’s overlooked “Stranger Than Fiction”), this is a curious story of a 243-year-old toy seller (Dustin Hoffman) who, aware of his impending mortality, bequeaths his enchanted store to his clerk, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). But Molly, a once-promising pianist who has let her talents atrophy, is 23 years old and uncertain about her life’s path. She’s not sure she can handle the emporium on her own.

There’s also the matter of the store itself, which is living and full of magic. When you can’t find a particular item on the shelves, you pull out the giant book that lists everything the emporium offers — and then, rather than telling you how to back-order it, the book simply produces the item out of thin air. The store loves Mr. Magorium, who has been its proprietor for 113 years. It rebels at the notion of his departure.

Mr. Magorium brings in an accountant named Henry Weston (Jason Bateman) to go through all his records to determine what the store is worth, in preparation for handing it over to Molly. Henry is a no-nonsense kind of guy who does not believe the store is actually magical. What he does believe — in fact he is sure of it — is that Mr. Magorium has been something less than assiduous in maintaining his financial records.

Mr. Magorium has some important questions for Henry to test his accounting skills. He asks, “The number four: Do we really need it?” Henry replies, “If you like squares, you do.” Mr. Magorium is satisfied, because he does like squares.

Dustin Hoffman is doing a funny voice and behaving in a very Wonka-esque manner, but I did not find his performance tiresome or overly cute. The character presides over his store like a kindly, eccentric uncle, encouraging kids to play with the toys to their hearts’ content, apparently never concerned about actually selling them. He’s reminiscent of a Dr. Seuss creation, all quirks and oddness but with a layer of humanity underneath.

The film is about nothing less than life and death — heady issues for a kids movie, yet handled delicately and profoundly. When Magorium tells Molly, “Your life is an occasion — rise to it,” it comes across as sweet and uplifting, not corny.

It helps that Natalie Portman gives such a smilingly innocent performance, accompanied by young Zach Mills as Eric, a timid 9-year-old boy who counts Molly as his only friend. Eric finds refuge in the emporium’s many delights, and eventually cracks the all-business shell on Henry the accountant. These three, Molly, Eric, and Henry, are vulnerable, lovable characters (Bateman is absolutely perfect as the level-headed comic foil), and their story, while set in a whimsical world, is ultimately down-to-earth and believable. If you don’t feel happy and buoyant when the film’s over, I think you must have watched it wrong.

B+ (1 hr., 33 min.; G, but it does deal with matters of life and death -- but then again, so did "Bambi".)

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