Melissa Mathison has worked on the screenplays for two of the most wondrous family films to emerge from Hollywood--"E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and "The Black Stallion." She's now done the adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks's award-winning children's book, The indian in the Cupboard (box), and though director Frank Oz's movie doesn't reach the pop poetic heights of those two (few films do), it's an engaging and touching flight of fancy.
The 9-year-old hero, Omri (Hal Scardino), gets three presents for his birthday--an old cupboard, a special antique key and a miniature plastic Indian. It proves to be a magical combination, for when he puts the three-inch figure in the cupboard, it comes to life as a real, albeit tiny, Iroquois named Little Bear (Litefoot), transported from 1761 and terrified by the giant New York City kid peering down at him.
Omri soon discovers that the cupboard can transform all his inanimate objects--dinosaurs, knights, Darth Vader--into flesh and blood. A bright, sensitive kid, he grasps that with this awesome power comes responsibility. Little Bear is dependent on him for survival, and the child suddenly has to act like a parent. When his pal Patrick (Rishi Bhat) insists on adding a toy cowboy on horseback to the mix--the weepy, trigger-happy Boone (a very funny David Keith)--Omri finds he needs the skills of a U.N. peacekeeper. In one startling sequence, Little Bear and Boone get their first exposure to TV-a racy blast of MTV sex, followed by a violent Indian massacre from an old Western. This movie shoot-'em-up incites near-lethal passions in Boone and Little Bear. Coming from Hollywood, it's a startlingly explicit metaphor (and mea culpa) for the connection between on- and off-screen violence.
The didacticism is, for the most part, gracefully meshed with the storytelling, and the special effects never take over the show. "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and others have played with scale before, but Oz's film differentiates itself by its intimacy--it's a kind of presexual love story between a boy and his man/toy, who is both his mentor and his charge. Growing up is seen as the discovery of compassion--recognizing that others have needs too. For a change, this is a fable in which a child discovers his "inner adult."
Ultimately, "Indian in the Cupboard's" claim on the heart-strings is the result of the off-beat casting. Scardino--found by casting director Margery Simkin after 500 auditions--has a lovely, goony charm, and Litefoot, a Cherokee rap artist with no acting experience, is a delightful discovery. That these two generate such a convincing bond is no mean feat: the trick perspective required them to play all their scenes together solo. Their friendship is the film's most indelible special effect.