Midway through Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, there comes a speech that I'll wager writer-director Zach Helm has been saving for future use ever since he discovered Shakespeare. Paraphrasing King Lear, Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), a 243-year-old "toy impresario" in shell-shocked hair, a purple suit, and an annoying lithp, lays it on the line for his grieving store manager Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a presentable lass who's stalled on all fronts, professional and personal. Preparing her for his own carefully planned exit from this mortal coil, he tells Mahoney, nicely but firmly, that when we die, we just die.
This will be existential music to the ears of those sour or secular cranks who've had it up to here with the benignly bearded God-substitutes of most movies. Still, Helm is no Christopher Hitchens here. Having dropped the difficult news, Mr. M. follows up with the improving insight that what matters is belief and the life you make for yourself, until the time comes to croak without fuss. With that, things grow tediously familiar.
Like most Christmas movies, Mr. Magorium's stocking comes stuffed with PSAs alerting children to something they, of all people, already know — that the world is plump with possibilities if you trust in the power of your imagination. Naturally, this falls on the deaf ears of the unfulfilled souls who most need to hear it: Mahoney, a former piano prodigy who can't seem to complete her own unfinished work; Eric (the appealing Zach Mills), a sensitive nine-year-old collector of kooky hats and very likely a stand-in for his creator; and The Mutant (Jason Bateman), a buttoned-down accountant who knows nothing of love or play.
All very sweet, but where do you take a movie without noticeable adversaries beyond the enemy within? Parceling out wisdom and unhinged happiness, Hoffman tries too hard for cute. Portman, sporting a flannel shirt and a chopped-off boy-cut, is about as delectable as soy ice cream, while Bateman seems not to have mastered the distinction between a bland character and a bland performance.
The only creature worth rooting for is the emporium itself, a charmingly anarchic showcase for misbehavior by the kind of handmade toys only scads of cutting-edge CGI could bring to life. When Mr. Magorium announces his intention of leaving the building, the colorful shop goes into an interesting gray funk, then loses it altogether in an orgy of slithering slinkies and careening wooden dinosaurs.
For sheer good nature, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium will earn better reviews than David Dobkin's energetically vulgar Fred Claus, which also deals with transcendence in toyland. Helm's storytelling is more tasteful, for what that's worth, but his pacing is as pallid as his palette is vivid, the slack story poorly structured around a few listless chapters, with a score that coyly features a number written by "Yusuf Islam" and performed by "Cat Stevens." For a movie that celebrates wonder and strangeness, the whole enterprise feels half-baked.