Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium (U)
Could this be the perfect family film for the festive season? it certainly cast a spell on Noel McAdamWhimsical wonderland
(U, 94 mins) Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman, Zach Mills
Have you ever seen a toy shop sulk? Not, as you may imagine, a pretty sight. But more of that later.
For here it is: the almost perfect family film outing this Christmas.
Golden Compass, Bee Movie and Enchanted may well do the better business: Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium, however, could be the best all-round movie experience.
Heavy on the whimsy and even - dare I say it - bland, it would probably die a death at any other time of the year, and yet Christmas has relatively little to do with it.
This is a real heart-warmer, lovingly put together yet perhaps just a little too sickly sweet. And there are, as you might expect, some very serious product placement issues.
But my guess is it will charm the young, and the young-at-heart.
From the very start, though, director/writer Zach Helm weaves a magic spell, opening with the most stunning titles sequence I can remember in quite a while.
It has a deeply sentimental heart but is also not afraid to send itself up, from the very start when the credits announce: "Supposedly ... a film by Zach Helm".
It is bulging with imagination and ideas: the sudden appearance of Kermit (honestly), a yellow and white hospital, the little Teddy longing to be picked off the packed shelf.
And ideas as old as the hills, also - a room which constantly changes, for example, the very staple of childhood dreams.
Hoffman and Portman turn in excellent performances as, respectively Magorium and his lovely assistant, Mahoney, who's getting lonely.
For years now Hoffman has been doing a strong line in the offbeat, from the existential detective in I Love Huckabees, the professor in the story of how JM Barrie created Peter Pan, Finding Neverland, and the strange shrink in the film of Will Farrell discovering his own life is being narrated, Stranger Than Fiction (also written by Helm).
Hoffman's latest off-man is the wild- haired, avid shoe wearer Mr Magorium, a mere 243 years old, who is planning not just to leave the store but the world. It is just, he explains, his time to go.
For Portman life has come up short and, increasingly aware of playing her piano in her room when she should be in a concert hall, realising that even working in a magic shop can have its limits.
Magorium, meanwhile, plans to leave the whole shop to her.
Into this world of wonder comes the last thing it needs, an accountant called Mutant (Bateman) since Magorium insists accountant is an amalgam of counting and mutant.
He is, says Mahoney, one of those 'just' people. "It's just a tree, it's just a shop, it's just what it is, nothing more ..."
The mix also includes lonely little nine-year-old Eric (Mills) a dedicated hat collector who had to come home early from summer camp, promising his parents he will make friends.
And despite its considerable age, the toy shops throws an all-time classic 'terrible twos' temper tantrum on learning that owner Magorium plans to go, a very funny and unforgettable sequence which may prove to be the best use yet of computer generation in a live action film.
The acting is uniformly superb, Bateman managing to be likeable and irritable at the same time and Mills avoiding the pitfalls of too cute.
It could be that rare thing, a movie which actually encourages people to read, particularly one scene where Eric unsuccessfully appeals to the accountant to come play checkers.
A double narrator device involving Bellini the builder, born in the basement of the toy shop, helps create the feeling of being engrossed in a warm and welcoming book.
This impression is enhanced by the old-fashioned division of the film into cleverly-tltled chapters, like Fun and Mental is Fundamental.
Even the music, including Cat Stevens and some piano Donovan (Jennifer Juniper) has its magical qualities.
And I like the key quote. Life is an occasion, says Magorium. Rise to it.