Dir: Zach Helm. US. 2007. 94mins.

Shunning the wised-up attitude and frenetic humour of so many other kids movies, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium may occasionally strain too hard for magical whimsy, but there's no disputing the film's sweetness or poignancy. Anchored by a deft performance from Natalie Portman as a young woman straddling adolescence and adulthood, the directorial debut of Stranger Than Fiction screenwriter Zach Helm impressively weaves serious themes about dying and self-reliance into a seemingly pedestrian G-rated story about a magical toy shop and its peculiar owner.

Opening this Friday in the US, Mr. Magorium's will be squaring off against sizable competition for the pre-Thanksgiving family audience. With Bee Movie still buzzing and titles like August Rush and Enchanted waiting in the wings, the question may very well be whether Mr. Magorium's can establish enough of a presence to hold its own. Its major production values and eccentric central character may call to mind kid-centric recent smashes such as Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events ($119m domestic, $90m international) or Charlie And The Chocolate Factory ($206m domestic, $269m international), but Mr. Magorium's lacks their star power and built-in brand recognition.

This 20th Century Fox offering's best hope is that its G-rating will cater to families who want to take their children to something guaranteed to be unobjectionable and that word of mouth will build from there. Such a possibility could help in foreign markets as well, since neither Dustin Hoffman nor Natalie Portman (outside of her involvement in Star Wars prequels) are sure-fire box-office. Once Mr. Magorium's finishes its overseas release in the spring of next year, look for decent ancillary performance, although the film may again take a backseat to more easily marketable family fare.

Molly (Portman), a former piano prodigy, works at an enchanted toy store run by the unusual Mr Magorium (Hoffman), who claims to be over 200 years old and approaches his business with a childlike wonder. Molly loves working for the man and being surrounded by such magical toys, but she becomes concerned when he mentions that he'll be 'leaving' soon and will hand the store over to her. With the help of a staid accountant (Bateman) and a lonely, keenly intelligent young boy (Mills), Molly tries to keep the store afloat while convincing Mr Magorium to stay.

Writer-director Zach Helm's first produced screenplay was last year's Stranger Than Fiction, a clever, heartfelt Charlie Kaufman-esque escapade that dealt with questions of destiny and creativity in honest, touching ways. Perhaps it's not surprising then that Mr. Magorium's displays a thoughtful side beneath the film's kid-friendly sheen and often corny humour. Both in its refusal to engage in moronic slapstick and its willingness to tackle serious subjects, Mr. Magorium's separates itself from the loud, vapid trash that too often passes for live-action family entertainment.

Molly is a woman torn between her girlish love for the fanciful store and her more adult worries about her chances to become a classical composer, and Portman's performance nicely captures that delicate film-long dance between the two sides of Molly's personality. Like the rest of the cast, Portman approaches her characterization seriously, which might seem odd for a role that requires a good deal of giddy, wide-eyed enthusiasm. But her sincerity makes the character's uncertainty about entering the 'real world' affecting and believable, striking a chord for anyone who's hesitated at the gates of adulthood.

In a supporting role, Hoffman has a harder time with Mr Magorium's incessant eccentricities. Conceiving him as a lisping jokester, Hoffman sporadically overdoes the character's twinkling adorableness, resulting in a performance that feels more like caricature. But as Magorium later reveals his plan for 'leaving' and begins to prepare Molly for a life without him, Hoffman finds his footing in a series of richly bittersweet scenes about the dignity of dying that never become maudlin. While his earlier convoluted shtick can get tedious, Hoffman's balance of tenderness and calm authority near the film's conclusion is proof of a great actor demonstrating his prowess effortlessly.

Admittedly, the bare bones of Helm's story betray a certain narrative conventionality, and the film's outcome is assured from the first few frames. Additionally, while Bateman's all-business accountant has a few moments of touching kindness, the character mostly exists to be a sourpuss foil who will later have a change of heart when he learns to lighten up and embrace the pleasures of life. But with that said, Bateman and young Mills share a terrific wordless scene where they exchange handwritten notes that speaks to the surprising depth of feeling Helm has provided his narrative. In its broad strokes, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is yet another kids tale about the importance of hanging onto your dreams and believing in yourself, but the conviction that Helm and his cast bring to those bland platitudes borders on the magical.

Production companies/backers
20th Century Fox (US)
Walden Media (US)
Mandate Pictures (US)
FilmColony (US)
Gang of Two (US)

Richard N Gladstein
James Garavente

Executive producers
Joe Drake
Nathan Kahane

Barbara A Hall

Zach Helm

Roman Osin

Production design
Therese DePrez

Sabrina Plisco
Steven Weisberg

Alexandre Desplat
Aaron Zigman

Main cast
Dustin Hoffman
Natalie Portman
Jason Bateman
Zach Mills