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.