Just when you thought there couldn't be a family/holiday movie worse than "Fred Claus," along comes "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium." With a narrative that is equally as lumbering and forced as its title, the movie could best be described as a toy store version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" without a single, solitary funny line.

Dustin Hoffman stars as the title character, a 243-year-old man who is as eccentric and creepily off-putting as Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka (and actually, Hoffman was on Tim Burton's short-list for that part). Of the many disappointments in the movie, Hoffman is the most obvious. He recycles every cinematic mad scientist with a bad-hairdo and lisp. The majority of the time, he sounds like Daffy Duck.

His emporium is less a store than fantastical playroom where children, none of whom actually have to go school, spend the day frolicking and getting into mischief.

Magorium's origins or advanced age are never addressed, but he somehow knows he will be dying tomorrow. He plans on leaving the store to its manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a frustrated childhood prodigy and composer who feels staying at the store will only prolong her already stunted maturation.

To help with the transition, Magorium hires accountant Henry (Jason Bateman), whom he dubs "the Mutant." The aloof Magorium has no clue of the state of his finances and hands over two-plus centuries' worth of receipts to Henry to sift through. Of course, Henry and Mahoney are pitted against each other at the onset in one of the clumsiest love/hate relationships ever conceived, which, in the end, goes nowhere.

Making his directorial debut is screenwriter Zach Helm ("Stranger Than Fiction"), and he certainly puts forth his best Spielberg/Burton imitation, yet the "magic" the characters speak of throughout is absent from the film itself. In place of interesting dialogue or plot twists, Helm simply presents four stock characters who show no arc. All of them, at one time or another, exhibit indifferent, waffling sincerity.

The only principal worth our time is Eric (Zach Mills), a preteen fixture at the store who has a penchant for hats - and not the kind normally associated with children. Throughout, he bemoans his solitude and his inability to find new friends. Eric's melancholy would be easier to understand if he actually behaved that way, but instead, Helm has act him fresh-faced and perky the whole time.

Having three sullen, so-so characters led by another with a death wish is not the greatest way to kick off the holiday season. This isn't the worst movie of the year by a long shot, but, considering the talent in and behind it, it has to be the most underachieving. (Fox)