It's prudent to make holiday plans early. And that's certainly what the Magorium team did in targeting the 2007 Thanksgiving-into-Christmas family-movie market. The shoot wrapped in June of last year. So why the long lead? ''We could have rushed it for 2006,'' says producer Jim Garavente. ''But those holiday-season slots were already gone. To get a good release date, we had to wait until '07. It's not like we're Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Narnia.''
Instead, Magorium is an original fantasy modeled heavily on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, about an iconoclastic toy-store owner (Dustin Hoffman) searching for a successor. He settles not on a responsible accountant (Jason Bateman) but on his insecure, young store manager, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). Zach Helm wrote the script about 10 years ago, but it stalled in development, with Drew Barrymore at one point attached to play Molly. After his Stranger Than Fiction screenplay won industry attention, Helm bought back the Magorium rights, wangled a directing slot, and pitched Portman to play Molly. She wanted to, but only after shooting Goya's Ghosts for Milos Forman first. ''Luckily,'' says Portman, ''Zach was like, 'I totally understand. I love Milos Forman too.'''
Hoffman, who'd reportedly longed to play Willy Wonka before Johnny Depp got the part, made Mr. Magorium a similar study in arrested-development whimsy. ''He definitely plays him as a child,'' says Portman. To become the 243-year-old character, Hoffman insisted on adopting a distinctive singsong lisp. The actor says that when his wife first read the Magorium script, she gave him the idea to use that particular voice, which he'd trotted out for years in telling and retelling a long, silly joke involving an ostrich. That's right: Magorium's weird speech patterns are basically Hoffman's impersonation of a flightless bird. ''It was an amazing insight on her part,'' says Hoffman of his wife's suggestion. ''Or, she's ended my career.'' By Thanksgiving, we'll know if he's cooked a feast or delivered a turkey.