The Indian in the Cupboard

(Frank Oz, USA, 1995)


One of my most cherished memories is of sitting in a full, city cinema at a prime evening session: before the main attraction, a mysterious teaser-trailer unspooled. We saw glimpses of an awestruck little boy and beams of heavenly light, heard soaring orchestral music, and got the hint that the plot involved an E.T.-like magical stranger.

When the title of this forthcoming movie was finally emblazoned on screen – The Indian in the Cupboard – the audience burst into prolonged, hysterical laughter.

Finally this movie appeared and, in contrast to that initial trailer, turns out to be not much fun. It would be easy to imagine that Frank Oz’s film offers a variation on Toy Story (1995) – toys alive and running loose in the world – crossed with the Pandora’s box lesson of Jumanji (1996): all hell breaks loose if a child plays where he shouldn’t.

In fact, it is more like Pocahontas (1995) or even Dances with Wolves (1990) in its pious determination to honour the American Indian. Omri (Hal Scardino) is a little boy who discovers that his toy cupboard has magical properties: it transforms figurines into tiny people, plucked straight from their own historical reality.

Writer Melissa Mathison (who scripted E.T. [1982]) narrows the possibilities of this supernatural premise down to just two important visitors: a maudlin, cussing cowboy (David Keith) and a noble Indian warrior, Little Bear (Litefoot). Omri does not need to repair a broken or dysfunctional family with the help of these wondrous buddies (which is the standard premise of most movies in the Spielberg tradition). Instead, he must learn a few lessons about moral responsibility, and especially about mortality.

This is a strangely sombre film for kids – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Experiences of wounding, dying and healing fill the story. In a terribly didactic scene, Little Bear and the cowboy, who have become friends, watch television (music videos and old Westerns) for the first time. Brainwashed by the spectacle of cheap death and amoral violence, they immediately try to kill each other. The trite message to children is clear: the mass media are dangerous and pernicious, while this movie is decent and true.

So it’s a very teacherly film – which instantly turns me right off. But it does have welcome touches of wonder. That cupboard – which instantly animates, un-animates or re-animates whatever is put in it – is a constant delight. Unfortunately, this prop is more expressive than the young star of the movie, who looks more pained than enlightened by all that occurs around him.

That army of concerned citizens forever out gunning for manifestations of so-called political correctness will have a ball with this film. At its end, Little Bear is given the floor to soliloquise at length about the nobility and profundity of his endangered culture and civilisation. But what about the cowboy? He’s only the token white-man from a bad, barbaric world – so he just waves cheerio with his hat.

MORE Oz: Bowfinger, In & Out, The Score, The Stepford Wives

© Adrian Martin April 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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