"Whimsy" is one of those things that's easier to write than to convincingly create. Several people are perfectly capable of scripting a scene where wide-eyed tots enter a room of perpetually bouncing balls, only to be chased out by a dodge ball the size of a Dodge truck. But precious few have the talent to bring said room to life for the good of a fantasy film.Zach Helm
, a gifted writer and director, unearths enough of those visual wizards for his debut picture Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, a production designer's dream that is wondrously stuffed with the type of creativity usually reserved for children's literature. Helm proved he can write whimsically with his clever Stranger than Fiction script, where tax agent Will Ferrell
ignored a narrators running commentary in his head. Now Helm's charming Emporium shows he's able to construct whimsy on screen, as well. Article continues below
Helm starts his story by telling us all stories must end so another can begin. In this case, 243-year-old toy shop manager Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman
) has just told his trusty (and mortal) assistant Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman
) that he is leaving. Not dying. Just leaving. He intends to turn the shop over to Mahoney, though she has her own concerns. Meanwhile, in order to get his financial affairs in order, Magorium has hired a buttoned-up accountant (Jason Bateman
) affectionately dubbed a "mutant" who's unable to see the magic that's visible to children and the young at heart.
The Emporium plot is hardly new. Magorium joins Willy Wonka, Santa Claus, and other adolescent caretakers who have used creative means to seek a worthy successor. Portman isn't the warmest actresses, though she gradually defrosts as Magorium sprinkles his magic around the unfolding narrative.
Helm's visual achievements, however, are worth the price of admission. The director uses traditional stop-motion and claymation effects to breathe life into his fairy tale. Magorium's toy shop is an astounding set constructed with unbridled imagination. It's an alternate universe children will adore. But Helm ups the ante as Emporium builds to its conclusion. He turns the actual store into a character, and like the kids that frequent its nooks and crannies, this shop is prone to mood swings and temper tantrums.
Outside of the shop much of Emporium falls to Hoffman, who plays his imaginative protagonist with a matter-of-fact innocence that rarely wavers. When push comes to shove, you could toss out the hair mousse, odd lisp, and other external tricks Hoffman brings to the role. So long as the actor taps into his inner child -- which he does throughout this fanciful treat -- the Emporium is a nice place to get lost for a few hours.