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‘Radio Flyer’ (PG-13)By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 21, 1992
At first, "Radio Flyer" looks to be a pleasant, if innocuous, story about childhood. The father of two, Mike (Tom Hanks) is spinning a yarn for his kids about his youth, a time of juvenile ups and downs spent with kid brother Bobby, their divorced mother and a dog called Shane.
Then Mike goes back in time, to California, 1969. The real story becomes apparent. Something new -- and bracing -- takes over. Something frightening, something close to home.
The younger Mike (now played by Elijah Wood) and Bobby (Joseph Mazzello) live in their own world. As the older Mike recalls, there are several things all kids know -- and adults don't. For one thing, monsters exist. For another, you can actually kill someone by aiming your cocked fingers at them and making a gun noise. There are other childhood secrets: You can achieve any feat of strength merely by wearing a superhero cape, or parachute from any height clutching an umbrella. The biggest secret, he says, is the ability to fly.
The kids' mother (Lorraine Bracco) loves her children but is completely unaware of their imaginative universe. When she remarries, she has no idea what new monster she has brought into their lives. Mike and Bobby, stalwart allies against the treacherous adult world, don't dare bring her up to speed on the man (Adam Baldwin) they call the king of all monsters.
Bracco, working a summer-long, double-shift job as a waitress, has no idea what is happening. It's better not to reveal any more than this but, for the kids, the situation gets more desperate. Their plans to build a flying machine from their Radio Flyer wagon, which they call The Big Idea, becomes something of a race against time.
What counts in "Radio Flyer" is its evocative texture. Director Richard Donner and screenwriter David Mickey Evans have created a very real, tragic world between the brothers. The help they give each other -- and the mature love that develops between them -- is immensely touching.
When things are going wrong, they instinctively reach for each other. At school one day, their stomachs suddenly start hurting. They mutually sense something's amiss. With instant agreement, they rush home to find out what it is. They're both far too young to have the worries they do. By default, Mike is Bobby's protector, and Bobby is haunted by a troubling vision.
"He knew about a special secret all kids know," says the older Mike. "Only he knew more. A lot more."
What Bobby knows is the poignant crux of this movie. This drama details what he and Mike, with their limited resources, do about that knowledge. As the children, Wood and Mazzello give unforgettable performances. There's a powerful sibling relationship between them that seems more than merely scripted. There's also much in this movie about what flying represents, and what building this Big Idea is really about. But that's for you to find out. It all makes for a soaring -- and tearful -- ending.
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