Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is the ideal movie for children of the 21st century. After all, most of the movies that find box-office success these days are visual-effects spectacles that offer much more in terms of style than substance. True to form, Emporium is fun to watch, and its G rating and children's book appeal make it enjoyable for kids 10 and younger, but there's not much here to keep adults interested.
One reason the movie feels like a children's book come to life is because it is one. Writer/director Zach Helm shapes his original story with the narration of young Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), who introduces each "chapter" with a colorful visage on paper that thaws into the movie's action.
The story follows Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a former piano prodigy who's lost her muse, as she works in the toy store of Mr. Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman). Much to her surprise, Magorium calls in a prim accountant (Jason Bateman) to find out how much the store is worth, and shortly thereafter, the 243-year-old (yes, he's that old) informs the un-magical Mahoney that he's "leaving" and plans to give her the store. This makes the emporium—which has a magical life of its own and is by far the most intriguing character in the movie—very upset, and as a result, it turns dark and shuts down.
In order to really get into the story you need to believe that magic is possible in this otherwise realistic setting, and adults may be a bit too cynical to buy into the kiddy nature of it all. Portman doesn't do much with her naive ingenue, but Hoffman, with his bright, striped suits, crazy hair and eyebrow extensions, offers enough innocent charm to keep things moving. More importantly, the story is so simple, you will not have to worry about your 4-year-old turning to you to ask what's happening.
The real draw here, however, is the emporium itself. Production designer Therese DePrez and visual effects supervisor Raymond Gieringer have created a place of magic and wonder, and the seemingly endless toys, gadgets and color-changing whatchamacalits offer a visual feast that will pique the imagination of every child in the theater. The better ideas include a room full of bouncing balls featuring a ball that's impossible to dodge, a magic book that brings whatever is on its open page to life, and a wall that Mr. Magorium chastises for changing its color when it's in a bad mood.
Movies are, in their own way, a form of magic. The mere idea of telling a story in outer space, or a land called Middle Earth, invites visions of fantastic grandeur that can only be fully realized on the big screen. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium may not offer much to adults, but for kids it's a wonderful introduction to the limitless possibilities that movies offer.