In an age of belt tightening, Dustin Hoffman’s hair in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium looks like the result of a budget cutback on makeup and costumes. It’s as if the actor took his normally thatchy coif, poured about half a bottle of mousse onto it, mussed it up with his fingers until he looked like Arthur Rubinstein with bedhead, and voilà! — instant wacky toy-shop owner! The characterization is every bit as cheap. Mr. Magorium, who is 243 years old (so are his jokes), is a cross between Willy Wonka and Geppetto, but Hoffman plays him with little more than a goofy dumb lisp, achieved by tucking his lower lip under his upper teeth, so that he looks just as rabbity-stoopid as he sounds.
In the Wonder Emporium, the toys all have prankish lives of their own — which could have been fun, in a Harry Potter meets Flubber sort of way, except that when you actually see the playthings (a mobile with real wriggling fish! Bouncy balls that try to escape!), they don’t look fun at all. Magorium is planning to hand over the shop to his assistant, an underachiever with self-esteem issues (Natalie Portman), and that’s the entire movie: Will she step up and take over? The store, too, is alive, and it’s possible that audiences will respond to the special-effects magic that results in one of the walls turning gray. Then again, they may want to save their enthusiasm for the moment when Magorium, really letting go now, does a happy little jig. Atop a sheet of plastic bubble wrap! F