Quiet spell

The Indian in the Cupboard is an oasis of calm amid the glitzy din of summer. It rarely shouts when it can whisper. Like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and the stories of the Arabian Nights, it's strange and complicated and contradictory.

Working from a kids' novel by Lynne Reid Banks, Muppeteer-turned-director Frank Oz and E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison have concocted a patient, personal movie paced to fit the rhythms of a parent reading a bedtime story to a child. (Which makes sense: Banks' book supposedly grew out of a made-up tale she told her own son many years ago.) It really crept up on me--it's not like any other children's film I've seen recently, or any film, period.

The title's matter-of-factness illustrates the picture's approach. This is a movie about a little boy who gets a magic cupboard for his birthday, finds out that it can bring toys to life, and then must deal with the consequences of this discovery.

The little boy is Omri (Hal Scardino). He lives in a Manhattan brownstone with his parents and two older brothers. It's an ideal, upper-middle-class existence--healthy, happy, and uneventful. It's not the kind of life that often serves as the basis for children's stories--a genre that prefers heroes and heroines who've been traumatized by war, poverty, fate, or a rough upbringing. Omri just feels a little bit lonely. He seems more advanced than his schoolmates, and more imaginative. And his older brothers, who have just crossed the border into adolescence, are too hip and self-infatuated to spend time with him anymore. He's bored and would like a new friend.

Enter Little Bear (played by Cherokee rapper Litefoot), a three-inch tall Onondaga brave. His existence in this world is never fully explained, which aids the film's pervasive aura of mystery: apparently, Little Bear was escorting his nephew through a forest in upstate New York one day in the 18th century, and suddenly found himself staring out of a giant cupboard into the terrifying visage of a creature he assumes is the Great Spirit. All Omri knows is that he received a small figurine of an Indian brave for his birthday, that he stuck it in his new cupboard, and that it came to life.

Omri discovers that by locking and then unlocking the cupboard door, he can transform Little Bear from a sentient being into a toy again, and vice versa. The digitally cut-and-pasted effects are no different in intent from the ones in Gulliver's Travels and The Incredible Shrinking Man, just smoother and more convincing. Oz adds verisimilitude by shifting focus between objects in the foreground and background of shots, and moving his camera so deftly that you can't tell where real-sized props leave off and overscaled ones come in. Omri soon figures out that bringing too many playthings to life at the same time causes a ruckus. (He puts four action figures in the cupboard at once, and opens it to find them embroiled in a fight to the death, creating a din that would surely wake up his parents if he didn't turn them back into toys.)

Little Bear is a fascinating pet; Omri thinks he'll keep him. So he asks the tiny warrior what he needs to get by--what sort of food he eats, what materials he'd need to build himself a comfortable house. What ensues feels like the tale of Gulliver and the Lilliputians recast as a buddy movie. Little Bear overcomes his initial fear and distrust of his giant captor and learns to live with him, even to appreciate him.

Up until this point, the film is, quite frankly, rather dull. Director Oz films the initial encounters between Omri and Little Bear so sedately that their interaction works at cross-purposes with Randy Edelman's soupy, Field of Dreams-style score (the film's single biggest creative mistake). The music and some of Oz's momentous compositions seem to be preparing you for showstopping events the picture obviously isn't going to deliver.

Fortunately, what comes next is a lot more interesting. The Indian in the Cupboard is one of those rare fantasies that actually takes its own premise seriously and explores it in detail. The premise only seems to be, "Boy discovers he can bring toys to life." It's really, "Boy discovers he can play God," and by extension, "What if God was a child?"

It's a thorny idea, but the story treads through it with patience, sensitivity, and care. Oz and Mathison treat both Omri and Little Bear as three-dimensional human beings with feelings, fears, hopes, and needs. Their relationship plays out as a conflict between youth and experience. Omri has absolute power over Little Bear by virtue of his size, but Little Bear has moral authority over Omri by virtue of his life experience; he's an adult who has been uprooted from his home in another century, he's still grieving over the death of his wife from smallpox, and now he finds that he has to kowtow to a gigantic, buck-toothed child. Needless to say, the setup makes him pretty grumpy.

But he turns sympathetic when he realizes that Omri knows not what he does. The film never pretends that Little Bear has anything to learn from Omri; obviously, the brave is the teacher in this relationship. Although Little Bear learns to live in this new world, his mind is always elsewhere. He wants to go home.

So does Boone, a Texas cowboy who was riding the range a hundred years ago and now finds himself trapped in a child's bedroom and forced to live with a Native American. (Boone is played by David Keith, who's so goofy and likeable that you might find yourself wishing he'd appeared in the movie sooner.)

At first, the cowpoke is presented as an essentially comic character, climbing furniture, racing across the floorboards, and firing at Little Bear, who's crouched behind a gigantic sneaker. But we quickly find out that he's a real person, too, and that he and Little Bear have more in common--sadly--than they realized. Both men have lost family members to disease, and both long to return home, find new loves, and begin again. A friend of Omri's smuggles them to school in a pouch on his hip; huddled together inside a zippered Velcro cell, they discuss their fears and dreams, and we are reminded of how rarely adults in movies--even normal-sized ones--are allowed to act anywhere near their age.

There are a lot of moments like this--moments in which simple situations reveal unexpected depths of feeling. Oz handles them delicately and with great precision, employing his considerable special-effects budget to make preposterous events seem as everyday as possible, and to make their ramifications seem like more than mere plot developments. The film isn't perfect; it's probably paced too deliberately to satisfy very young children, and its refusal to develop some of its most striking images (like Little Bear hunting a once-ceramic deer in the garden behind Omri's house, and Little Bear's battle with a rat under the floorboards) seems self-defeating. But it has a good heart, and a brain, too. At its best, it takes you places only a handful of children's movies would dare to go.

At one point, the well-meaning kid tries to get his little buddy a bow and arrow by swiping a figurine of a village elder from a diorama at school and bringing it to life in the cupboard. When Omri takes the bow and arrow, the old man keels over dead from a heart attack. If this were a Disney picture, Little Bear would say an incantation, the old man's body would be covered in animated sparkles, and he'd spring instantly back to life.

But The Indian in the Cupboard isn't a Disney movie. The old man is dead in both our world and his because a little boy didn't understand the full implications of his own power. This scene exists not to tug at our heartstrings, but to reveal to Little Bear that Omri is frightened by death, and that anybody who's scared of death cannot be God. And if Omri isn't God, then he shouldn't be feared--and he can even be convinced to do the right thing and return his new friends to their rightful homes.

It's tempting to overanalyze a movie like this, but I had to convince myself not to, because it would be like dissecting a bird to figure out what makes it sing. I enjoyed the fact that Oz and Mathison respected the story's many idiosyncrasies. Doctoral candidates have probably already written thesis papers dealing with Lynne Reid Banks' Cupboard novels (there are four so far), analyzing them as parables about parenting or racism or Western imperialism or heaven knows what.

But I'd rather view this film as another entry in the proud tradition of fables--a tradition that encompasses everything from Aesop and Dr. Seuss to Homer to the Old Testament. The purpose of fables isn't to illustrate a single moral point. (Any story that makes only one point isn't a story, but a lecture.) The purpose of fables is to create a narrative framework in which any number of daunting, complicated questions can be pored over--with the assurance that you'll never reach the same conclusions twice.

The Indian in the Cupboard is that kind of fable. Young children probably won't understand the first time they see it. If they've been raised on noisy visual junk, they might even stir and grow restless as the tale unfolds. But they'll remember images from it for the rest of their lives. This movie is like a vivid dream you just can't shake.

The Indian in the Cupboard. Tri-Star. Hal Scardino, Litefoot, David Keith. Script by Melissa Mathison, from Lynne Reid Banks' novel. Directed by Frank Oz. Now showing.


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