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The Indian in the Cupboard

Rated G, 96 min. Directed by Frank Oz. Starring Hal Scardino, Litefoot, Lindsay Crouse, Richard Jenkins, Rishi Bhat, David Keith.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 21, 1995

From the multi-award-winning children's book by Lynne Reid Banks comes this above-average fantasy that somehow manages to retain most of the sly wit and style of the source material despite Oz's sometimes heavy-handed direction. When young Omri (Scardino) is given a small, wooden cabinet, his grandmother's skeleton key, and a tiny plastic Indian for his ninth birthday, he discovers that the gifts are entirely magical: By putting the Indian (Litefoot) in the cupboard and turning the key, he can bring the tiny warrior to life (as well as any other figures he places inside the slightly worse-for-wear cabinet). Enchanted, both Indian and boy become unlikely friends, with Omri placed in the troubling position of having to take full adult responsibility for the care of his diminutive charge, while the Indian -- an Onondaga Iroquois by the name of Little Bear -- struggles to make sense of what has happened to him. When Omri's best friend, Patrick (Bhat), discovers the secret of the cabinet and introduces a tiny cowboy into the picture, the stage is set for both dangerous confrontations and emotional roller coasters. As the old screenwriting maxim goes, “If you introduce a bow and arrow in the first act-.” One of the chief draws of The Indian in the Cupboard is the excellent animation -- courtesy of George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic -- used to portray the aptly named Little Bear. A combination of rear projection, computer graphics, and, I believe, some sparing use of stop-motion animation, bring the character to life wonderfully, though much of the credit here goes to the remarkably well-chosen cast from Litefoot (in his acting debut) on down. Oz and screenwriter Melissa Mathison manage to retain the novel's solid moral tone without diluting it for the screen, though the director does occasionally wander into unwarranted Spielbergian territory with lingering, golden-lit shots of the Indian and the odd bit of pedantic dialogue ("There are lessons to be learned here, kids," he seems to be saying, as he hammers home a couple of points with all the subtlety of Hank Aaron). In a young person's film as charming as this, that remains a minor quibble, though. Surprisingly well-done nearly all the way around, this neither plays down to its target audience, nor fumbles the inherent childhood fantasy of the story. And, of course, after the annoying Housesitter, it's nice to see Oz back in the magical realm he appears to know so well.
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