The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)

27 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Children sometimes like to pretend their action figures are alive—they play their games with this imaginative concept and treat their tiny figures as if they were real people. But because these kids know their toys are not truly living, they feel free to subject them to all sorts of playful tricks in an imaginary war for them. But what if these toys actually did come to life? They wouldn’t be toys, though. They would be real, three-to-four-inch high people. Throw them around in these previously-harmless games, and they will be injured or worse. These kids would then have to learn responsibility in the case of looking out for these new companions, because they truly are new companions. That’s how “The Indian in the Cupboard” manages to teach lessons to kids without feeling the need to preach. It’s an interesting concept for a family film, and it’s put to good use.

Based on the popular novel by Lynne Reid Banks and adapted by “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Matheson, “The Indian in the Cupboard” joins that special class of family films that truly know its target audience and treat them with enough intelligence as well as entertainment value that also manages to teach something. There’s as much focus to the story as there is to the (required) special effects. As a result, the kids are not only entertained, but they feel they learned something from the movie. And adults, or rather parents of these young children, won’t be bored by it.

“The Indian in the Cupboard” begins as a boy named Omri (Hal Scardino) is celebrating his ninth birthday. He gets a skateboard and the latest toys, but also a little plastic Indian figure and an old cupboard. Omri finds a key that fits the cupboard lock and puts the Indian inside it. He learns, to his amazement, that once he sticks a figurine in the cupboard, turns the key in the lock, and opens the door, that figurine comes to life. That’s what happens with the Indian, who is now a living, breathing, four-inch tall Iroquois native named Little Bear who sees Omri as a giant and reacts with awe and fear. Omri and Little Bear (Litefoot) soon befriend one another, as Omri realizes just how real Little Bear really is. “He talks, he eats, he trusts me,” Omri writes in his classroom story about the ongoing experience.

It’s here that the lesson of responsibility comes into place. Omri knows that this previously plastic toy is now suddenly alive because of this cupboard, and at one point feels free to try this new discovery on other toys (RoboCop and Darth Vader, in one brief scene), but once he does this, he realizes that this is not a game to play. This is a dangerous, delicate new thing that Omri must be careful with. He must also make sure that Little Bear is safe while he decides to stay in Omri’s world for a while—once Little Bear is out of Omri’s sight, he is attacked by a bird, and so Omri uses the cupboard to bring a British wartime medic, Tommy (well-played by Steve Coogan), to life for help. That also brings into the question of overusing this gift just because he can—Omri learns that if he’s going to do it again, there has to be a good reason for it. At one point, Little Bear even points out, “You should not do magic you do not understand!” “The Indian in the Cupboard” is effective at stating that everyone must be responsible for their actions, even a child.

Midway through the movie, Omri’s friend Patrick (Rishi Bhat) is let in on the secret, but Patrick is defiant and decides to use the cupboard himself, despite Omri telling him this is too much responsibility for him to handle. Patrick brings to life a cowboy figurine (and his horse) that becomes a cranky, emotional cowboy named “Boo-Hoo” Boone (David Keith) that of course sees Little Bear as a “stinkin’ savage” and so the two are at war with each other. So while Omri has to convince Patrick that having this four-inch person around is something to think further about, he also has to make sure the cowboy and the Indian get along. A clever, nice touch.

The visual effects in “The Indian in the Cupboard” are outstanding. Mixing the young actors (Hal Scardino and Rishi Bhat) with miniature people are seamless and well-done. They look like they’re right there in the frame with each other. Also, the effects aren’t flashy; they’re executed in a surprisingly plausible manner (notice how in some shots, the little people are out of focus in comparison to the “big” kids), which helps make it easy to suspend disbelief. There’s another fantastic effects shot that shows Little Bear in the palm of Omri’s hand, and it looks so convincingly real.

What it really comes down to with “The Indian in the Cupboard” is its messages of ethics and relationships. The themes of ethics are present in this movie, but they’re not thrown at your face. We see Omri’s growth and learn along with him, which also makes this more of a coming-of-age story than anything else. The relationships are present not only with Omri and Little Bear, but with Little Bear and Boone who do sort of become friends, despite their differences. They’re both tense yet interesting relationships to follow.

I don’t want to make “The Indian in the Cupboard” seem like so much of a family drama with special effects, because the movie is also a good deal of fun. There are little touches that help make the film interesting and fun to watch (as they follow along with the morals and ethics), including the character of Tommy who is fascinated by what happens to him (though he believes it’s a dream, to be sure) whenever Omri has to bring him to life for help. And of course, having a cupboard that can bring anything to life is undeniably fascinating—I love the bit in which Omri offers Little Bear a plastic tepee on his first night, and then uses the cupboard to make it into a real one. There’s also a crucial scene in which Omri and Patrick are forced to keep an eye out for a loose pet rat and make sure it doesn’t get to Little Bear and Boone, and there comes a satiation later in which Little Bear must go underneath the floorboards of Omri’s bedroom in order to retrieve the cupboard key, while the rat might also be loose down there. (Though, I’m not going to lie—I kind of wished there was an action sequence in which Little Bear fights off the rat. Instead, we’re subjected to seeing the boys as they listen for danger. But that’s a minor nitpick.) The best way to describe “The Indian in the Cupboard” is saying it’s smart, entertaining, and downright magical.

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