Quiet Spell

The Indian in the Cupboard is as matter-of-fact and mysterious as its title

The Indian in the Cupboard is an oasis of calm amid the glitzy din of summer. It rarely shouts when it can whisper. Like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and the stories of the Arabian Nights, it is strange and complicated and contradictory.

Working from a children's novel by Lynne Reid Banks, Muppeteer-turned-director Frank Oz and E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison have concocted a patient, personal movie paced to fit the rhythms of a parent reading a bedtime story to a child. It really crept up on me; it's not like any other children's film -- or any film, period -- I've seen recently.

The title's matter-of-factness illustrates the picture's approach. This is a movie about a little boy who gets a magic cupboard for his birthday, finds out that it can bring toys to life and then must deal with the consequences of this discovery.

The little boy is Omri (Hal Scardino). He lives in a Manhattan brownstone with his parents and two older brothers. It's an ideal, upper-middle class existence -- healthy, happy and uneventful. It's not the kind of life that often serves as the basis for children's stories -- a genre that prefers heroes and heroines who've been traumatized by war, poverty, fate or a rough upbringing. Omri just feels a little bit lonely. His older brothers, who have just crossed the border into adolescence, are too hip and self-infatuated to spend time with him anymore. He's bored and would like a new friend.

Enter Little Bear (played by Cherokee rapper Litefoot), a three-inch tall Onondaga brave. His existence in this world is never fully explained, which aids the film's pervasive aura of mystery: apparently, Little Bear was escorting his nephew through a forest in upstate New York one day in the 18th century and suddenly found himself staring out of a giant cupboard into the terrifying visage of a creature he assumes is The Great Spirit. For Omri's part, all he knows is that he received a small figurine of an Indian brave for his birthday, that he stuck it in his new cupboard and that it came to life.

Omri discovers that by locking and then unlocking the cupboard door he can transform Little Bear from a sentient being into a toy again, and vice versa. He also figures out that bringing too many playthings to life at the same time causes a ruckus. (He puts four action figures into the cupboard at once, and opens it to find them embroiled in a fight to the death, creating a din that would surely wake up his parents if he didn't turn them back into toys.) The digitally cut-and-pasted effects are no different in intent from the ones in Gulliver's Travels and The Incredible Shrinking Man, just smoother and more convincing. Oz adds verisimilitude by shifting focus between objects in the foreground and background of shots, and moving his camera so deftly that you can't tell where real-sized props leave off and overscaled ones come in.

Little Bear is more than just a prop; Omri considers him a fascinating pet, so he asks the tiny brave what he needs to get by -- what sort of food he eats, what materials he'd need to build himself a comfortable house. What ensues feels like the tale of Gulliver and the Lilliputians recast as a buddy movie. Little Bear overcomes his initial fear and distrust of his giant captor and learns to live with and even appreciate him.

To this point, the film is, quite frankly, rather dull. Director Oz films the initial encounters between Omri and Little Bear so sedately that their interaction works at cross-purposes with Randy Edelman's soupy, Field of Dreams-style score (the film's single biggest creative mistake). The music and some of Oz's momentous compositions seem to be preparing you for showstopping events the movie obviously isn't going to deliver.

Fortunately, what comes next is a lot more interesting. The Indian in the Cupboard is one of those rare fantasies that actually takes its premise seriously and explores it in detail. The premise only seems to be "Boy discovers he can bring toys to life"; it's really, "Boy discovers he can play God" and, by extension, "What if God were a child?"

It's a thorny idea, but the story treads through it with patience, sensitivity and care. Oz and Mathison treat both Omri and Little Bear as three-dimensional human beings with feelings, fears, hopes and needs. Their relationship plays out as a conflict between youth and experience. Omri has absolute power over Little Bear by virtue of his size, but Little Bear has moral authority over Omri by virtue of his life experience; he's an adult who has been uprooted from his home in another century, he's still grieving over the death of his wife from smallpox and now he finds that he has to kowtow to a gigantic, buck-toothed child. Needless to say, the setup makes him pretty grumpy.

Still, he turns sympathetic when he realizes that Omri is childishly unaware of just what he's doing. But although Little Bear learns to live in this new world, his mind is always elsewhere. He wants to go home.

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