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‘The Indian in the Cupboard’ (PG)

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 14, 1995

"The Indian in the Cupboard" starts with a good idea: a fetching story, based on the prize-winning children's book by Lynne Reid Banks, about a magic cupboard that brings toys to life. But making an appealing children's movie is no easy task—adult filmmakers don't necessarily know what kids find interesting, and kids don't always make the best actors. "Indian" drops into both potholes and is ultimately done in by two-dimensional characterizations and poor acting.

Hal Scardino, who plays the 9-year-old protagonist Omri, is the biggest offender, lacking both presence and viable acting talent.

Some scenes nearly make you cringe. Director Frank Oz (who made "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and, along with Jim Henson, created the Muppets) probably wished he were back directing Kermit the Frog, who displays a more convincing range of emotion than Scardino. "Indian" has spectacular special effects to fall back on, but that's not enough to save it.

The story, though, is magical: For his ninth birthday, Omri receives, among other things, an old wooden chest from his brother and a three-inch-tall plastic Indian from his best friend (newcomer Rishi Bhat). Omri locks the Indian in the chest with an old key given to him by his mother (Lindsay Crouse, hiding her formidable talent behind a vapid smile). She explains that she was given the key by her dying grandmother, who was so poor she had nothing else to pass down. Therefore, we understand, it is Magic.

The next morning Omri wakes to find the Indian—Little Bear—has come to life, still three inches tall. Omri learns this happens to any toy figure he locks in the chest. Unfortunately, the plastic Indian was less wooden than the live one, played by another newcomer, a Cherokee rapper named Litefoot. It's a good thing the role demands little more than to look buff, which he does.

The film is driven by special effects reminiscent of those in "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." They are beautifully filmed and completely convincing, even witty, in their detail. The set construction is similarly magnificent.

David Keith ("An Officer and a Gentleman") is one of the few bright spots. He plays a wonderfully hammy, weepy cowboy—"Boo-Hoo" Boone—who is forced to confront his anti-Indian bias. Also notable is British comic Steve Coogan, who has a small but wittily poignant role as a World War I medic whom Omri brings to life to patch up Boone after Little Bear shoots him with an arrow.

Ah, yes. The violence. Little Bear becomes disoriented while watching a cowboys-and-Indians western on TV and shoots Boone, who seemingly plummets to his death. There is also an old Indian Omri frightens to death and a scene with a menacing rat, which might cause small children a few nightmares.

The movie is ultimately a fable about the dangers of playing God and what valuable lessons evil, murderous white men should learn from noble, wise Native Americans. Simple fables are key to children's movies, and they should leave the audience with a sense of wonder. But this politically sanitized one—with stereotyped characters on both sides—is more tedious than uplifting.

The Indian in the Cupboard is rated PG for violence and mild profanity.

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