'Indian' should have stayed in the cupboard


Say this for "The Indian in the Cupboard": The movie plays it straight. It's really about an Indian in a cupboard.

If only Steven Spielberg had directed Melissa Mathison's screenplay, as he did for "E.T." the movie might have had the sense of imagination-expanding wonder and glory that film packed. Instead, the screenplay has been entrusted to the literal-minded Frank Oz, who seems to specialize in petty cruelty, as he's displayed in such films as "What About Bob?" and "Dirty Rotten Scandals," and even in the snippy hauteur he brought to Miss Piggy when he was her principal puppeteer. He doesn't do wonder.

The story is derived from a much-loved children's book by Lynne Reid Banks. It's a fable, but a mature fable: Its values are healthy, including love, responsibility and, ultimately, courage. It's not about indulgence but about coming to grips. The fundamental mechanism is to show the deeper problems that hide under something that's initially very "cool."

Omri, played appealingly by a non-movie actor-type kid named Hal Scardino, is a somewhat put-upon fourth-grader living in New York. On his 9th birthday, he gets an odd slew of presents, including a plastic Indian and a cupboard an older brother has filched from the garbage. Why doesn't his mom go, "Ewww. Get that smelly, dirty thing out of here!"? The answer is that if she does, there's no movie.

For the cupboard, when coupled with a long-lost key, is magic, and has the power to turn inanimate objects to life. In goes the September Playboy, right? No, this is family entertainment, produced "in association with Scholastic Productions." No Miss September for Omri. Instead, in goes the plastic Indian, who comes out shortly thereafter a 3-inch high Iroquois named Little Bear (the Cherokee rapper Litefoot).

Cool, huh? His very own pet Indian, small enough to talk to, yet not large enough to threaten anything. When he shoots an arrow, it lands with a little prick of pain, but does no damage. Soon enough, after almost unleashing Darth Vader among others upon the planet, Omri settles for just one more little man, the rumbustious cowpoke Boo-Hoo Boone (David Keith).

The magic, by the way, has no special significance and is never explained. It's simply a given in this otherwise naturally evoked urban world. Therefore, the special effects, by Industrial Light and Magic, are brilliant but straightforward; they've been calculated in such a way as to appear ordinary. That's simply a 3-inch Indian down there on the floor or in Omri's pocket. Spielberg would have pumped the relation between them into bTC something resembling a miracle in a cathedral; for Oz, it's simply business as usual.

And the business, as it turns out, is maturity. The thrust of the film turns out not to be the callow coolness of the situation, but Omri's growing realization that these are real human beings, not action figures who happen to be made of flesh and blood. They have culture, tragic memories, a sense of loss and terror. Ultimately, Omri faces the reality of his responsibility and makes a decision about their future and his.

So "The Indian in the Cupboard" is good for you. But is it fun for you? Well, that's less clear. To me, the movie felt slow and didactic; it lacked the kind of forward thrust that a narrative mechanic such as Spielberg would have engineered. On the other hand, the performances are absolutely first-rate, particularly Scardino's. It's so rare to find a kid actor who acts like a kid and not an actor, and isn't coming off of 350 Kellogg's Cornflake ads and Nine Inch Nails videos. He gives "The Indian in the Cupboard" a truly human center.

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"The Indian in the Cupboard"

Starring Hal Scardino and Litefoot

Directed by Frank Oz

Released by Paramount

Rated PG

... **

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