Attracting a general audience to a movie is an increasingly difficult task. With products marketed to an ever-growing list of niche demographics (semi-professional French caterers ages 31 to 33, pirate apprentices ages 16 to19, etc.), the multi-generational appeal of classics like E.T. and Back to the Future seems ever more aberrant, and the production of an affirming and family-friendly film like The Last Mimzy all the more unlikely.

Adapted from a 1943 short story by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner and his wife, C. L. Moore), The Last Mimzy is the tale of two disarmingly cute kids (newcomers Chris O'Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) who develop special powers after finding a mysterious box of toys on a beach near Seattle. The two are then set to the task of accomplishing a dizzying sci-fantasy mission which the toys, and especially a little rabbit – Mimzy – seem to demand; much to the fear and befuddlement of their parents, a fittingly inept department of homeland security and, just for good measure, one of the kids' slightly goofy science teacher.

The film took over a decade to develop, a span of time that director Bob Shaye says was needed “out of respect for the audience. To throw a movie into production that's not ready to go is the biggest single mistake that a production company can make.”

And he should know; considering that as founder and Co-Chairman of New Line Cinema, Shaye has some 40 years of filmmaking experience under his belt. Shaye has helped to release everything from campy cult-classics like Reefer Madness to monumental box office behemoths like The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

To ensure Mimzy's appeal to a younger audience, Shaye cast Rainn Wilson, best known as Dwight from NBC's “The Office,” in the role of Larry White, the lovable oddball science teacher. Wilson's character and story arc were created at the behest of Shaye and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (an Oscar winner for Ghost ), because Shaye “wanted to have a kind of Whoopi Goldberg counterpoint to the story.”

This suits Wilson just fine, who upon hearing his role was inspired by the venerable Sister Act star replied, with as much confusion as irony, “I'm the Whoopi Goldberg? Wow, thanks!”

Wilson is magnetic and hilarious in the film, his weird-o-meter turned down to a family friendly 3.5 from his “Office” character (8.7) or Arthur, the mortician's assistant he played on “Six Feet Under” (9.4) – the role in which Shaye first saw him. Wilson explains his preference for oddball roles in terms of some innate preference saying, “I've always been attracted to those kind of characters even before I was an actor. Those were the characters I liked to watch, the people I responded to.”

Playing the creep also allows him to undercut the normalcy of the square-jawed narcissists who typically occupy the role of male lead. He says, “A lot of actors have so much vanity they're not interested in the weirdos and the oddballs, unless it's Brad Pitt doing a weirdo turn in 12 Monkeys playing a crazy guy, just because his agent tells him it's a good idea.”

While Wilson's weirdness is vital for delivering Mimzy a young adult audience, the movie can't succeed without convincing child leads. O'Neill plays big bro Noah with no small amount of aww-shucks wonder, and Wryn, who, although she can't read yet, is cute as a button on a butterfly. The big bro-lil' sis back and forth of the two, along with some awe-inspiring visual effects from the “toys” are the centerpieces of this film.

O'Neill, stoked as any middle schooler who just made a movie ought to be, explains how he got the part with the same sense of wonder he displays in the film. He remarks, “I got this acting coach in Denver … I started doing a lot of classes, I got an agent and then, I got Mimzy .”

The Last Mimzy releases in theaters March 23.