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‘Radio Flyer’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 21, 1992

Richard Donner's "Radio Flyer" is a highly unstable hybrid of elements, a mongrel combination of "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Throw in a little "E.T." too. For extra uplift.

The goal of this strenuous hammering together of spare parts is the creation of a sense of childlike wonder. It's an aqueous tale about the power of imagination, and how, by a leap of sublime inspiration, two young brothers overcome their fear to escape a cruelly abusive father. They manage this by the unlikeliest of means -- by collecting a load of old junk and building an airplane out of their trusty red Radio Flyer wagon. The wonder is the thing ever gets off the ground. The plane, that is. The movie is a crash-and-burn job.

The story -- told in flashback by Tom Hanks, who is one of the brothers, to his two eager young sons -- begins in the late '60s as Mike and Bobby (Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzello) are traveling with their mom (Lorraine Bracco) from New Jersey to their new home in the small suburban town of Novato, Calif. Their real father has deserted them, but soon they have a new dad -- a welder who, every day after work, lumbers out into the garage to get drunk. We never really see this stepfather's face, and this is by design. He's not really a person; he's a monster, a Freddy Krueger father who, tanked on suds, takes out his unexplained rage on the younger of the boys.

The kids believe in monsters; their existence is one of the Seven Great Abilities and Fascinations of Childhood that the narrator keeps telling us about. (Another is the ability to fly.) There are grace notes in David Mickey Evans's self-consciously literary script, and what appears to be a genuine interest in the inner lives of children. But Donner directs the story for effect, not affect; he's not interested in anything beyond getting his audience to jump to his cues.

In Donner's hands, the serious issue of child abuse is reduced to a mere device too. And it's a mark of Donner's cynicism that he manipulates our emotions so shamelessly with such genuinely grave material. Both Wood and Mazzello have moments when their hypersensitive cuteness isn't being shoved down our throats, but, under the circumstances, about the best they can do is not completely alienate us. Bracco, who, as a waitress working double shifts, is barely in the film, gives real bite to her few scattered moments on screen, but, ultimately, her character is marginal.

Donner has a reputation for manhandling scripts, and you get the feeling that buried beneath his stalker-movie techniques is a real movie, with a genuine feel for its characters and its subject. Having stomped on the accelerator in the "Lethal Weapon" movies, he may have his gears locked permanently in overdrive. At any rate, his touch is lethal.

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