It has taken a week or two to catch up with an exceptional children's movie called The Indian in the Cupboard, and the wait was worthwhile.
The director is Muppet-meister Frank Oz, the screenplay is by Melissa Mathison, who wrote the family blockbusters E.T. the Extraterrestrial and The Black Stallion, and the original novel, by Lynne Reid Banks, won a dozen major kiddie-lit prizes. But even those powerhouse credentials might not prepare you for the depth and originality of a summer movie that nimbly reverses the shopworn formula--trotted out from Big to Regarding Henry--about the man who discovers his inner child. Here, a toothy Everykid named Omri (Hal Scardino) glimpses what it's like to be a grownup.
On his birthday, Omri gets an old wooden cupboard from his brother, a three-inch plastic Indian from his best friend and a key to the cabinet. Bright, curious lad that he is, Omri discovers that he can bring his Indian miniature to life by locking him in the cupboard for a moment. The figure becomes Little Bear (Litefoot), an eighteenth-century Iroquois full of Native American wisdom but taken aback by the nine-year-old giant gawking at him from over the bedpost.
Thus is launched a buoyant fantasy that combines preadolescent hero worship with the dawning of integrity and responsibility. To Omri, Little Bear is a living, breathing plaything, but he also needs a few kernels of granola for breakfast and a comfortable place to live. It's the boy who must provide--like a father. After all, he doesn't dare tell his own mom and dad about his secret.
The moviemakers enrich the tale with some other toys brought to life-- an ornery cowboy called Boone (David Keith), a war-weary Cockney medic straight from the Western Front, and--when Omri lets things get out of hand--a scary, battling trio comprised of Darth Vader, a snorting dinosaur and a knight errant. In the course of his magic-cupboard experiments, Omri learns about power, about restraint in using it and about tolerance. But the message is so gaily wrapped in the sheer fun of the narrative that we never feel we're getting bopped over the head. Meanwhile, director Oz doesn't allow the picture's big-versus-small special effects to dwarf the progress of a friendship and the boy's first glimmers of adulthood.
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Start to finish, The Indian in the Cupboard is that rare thing--a kids' picture that puts the heart and soul of kids first.