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‘The Indian in the Cupboard’ (PG)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 14, 1995

A GREAT BIG-HEARTED movie about a teeny-tiny little fella, "The Indian in the Cupboard" is a faithful, clever adaptation of Lynne Reid Banks's award-winning children's book. A sort of blockbuster in reverse, with its action and adventures played on a very small scale, it combines the touching themes of classic stories like "The Velveteen Rabbit" with the high-tech micro-special effects of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."

The story begins when a 9-year-old Brooklyn boy named Omri (Hal Scardino) receives a nondescript-looking wooden cupboard, retrieved from a junk pile by one of his teenage brothers, as a birthday present. Omri's mom gives him an antique key from among the keys she's been collecting since she was a girl. And his best friend Patrick (the hilariously blase Rishi Bhat) gives him a toy Indian, which naturally goes right into the cupboard.

That night, Omri wakes to the sound of the key rattling in the cupboard's lock. He opens the door and discovers a terrified, three-inch-tall Indian brave (Litefoot), trembling in a corner.

It seems there's magic in that cupboard: When Omri puts a toy in it and locks it, the toy is real when he opens it. And he can reverse it, which turns out to be lucky when Omri experiments by putting a bunch of Skeletor, Darth Vader and dinosaur toys in all at once. Soon Omri's turning toys into real teepees, tools and bows-and-arrows for the Indian's use—he even calls the toy figure of a WWI British medic into service after the Indian is injured while hunting tiny deer in the garden.

Once trust is established between the big kid and the little guy, Omri begins to bond with the Indian, an Iroquois named Little Bear, who speaks perfect, if suspiciously California-inflected English. While Little Bear builds a longhouse for himself in a shoe box (Omri's brothers are impressed—they think it's a school project), Omri eagerly reads about the Iroquois tribe at school.

Of course, Omri can't resist sharing his secret with Patrick, who insists on bringing over a toy cowboy so he can have his own pet human. And so the problems begin: "Don't put them together," Patrick observes. "You know, cowboys and Indians."

Gawky and gangly, with a Letterman-esque gap in his buck teeth, Scardino's Omri is an endearingly real kid, not one of those irritatingly charming child-actor types. Scardino, who was first seen in "Searching for Bobby Fischer," gives a gentle, natural performance, and his expressive eyes register confusion, wonder and fun as he reacts to the clever but never overwhelming special effects. As the bite-sized Little Bear, Litefoot (a Native American rapper making his acting debut) makes an ideal, stoic and sensitive little big brother to a boy at an awkward in-between age. The loving and indulgent grown-ups—parents and teachers, mostly—are otherwise bland and preoccupied, but, hey, it's not their story.

It shouldn't be surprising that "Indian" is so swell, considering the terrific team behind it: It was directed by Muppet man Frank Oz and written by Melissa Mathison, who wrote the screenplay for "E.T." and "The Black Stallion." Omri grows up a bit in the movie, and learns a subtle message about responsibility and respect for life and death. And Little Bear's adventures in the great big world are just daring enough to be suspenseful, but not so scary to really upset anyone (there is one great boo! moment that makes everyone in the theater jump, and then laugh). Grown-ups will find it smart and enchanting, and perhaps reminiscent of their own imagination-filled childhoods. And at 96 minutes, "The Indian in the Cupboard" is just long enough to hold the attention of the youngest audience members.

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