It sounds like a pun to say THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD feels small, because you see, it’s about a tiny little man who lives in a regular sized kid’s bedroom. But it also is a movie that feels small, in a good way. Based on the 1980 children’s novel by Lynne Reid Banks, it’s the story of a kid named Omri (Hal Scardino, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER) who discovers that he has one of those magic cupboards that turns miniature toys into living beings. The first one he does is a model Indian, who becomes an Iroquois warrior named Little Bear (Litefoot, MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION). So Omri keeps li’l Little Bear in his bedroom, protects him, gives him materials to build a longhouse with (after he rejects a plastic teepee, having no idea what a teepee is).
So it’s a movie full of what must’ve been really difficult special effects, with many scenes of Litefoot on giant sets composited with Scardino on regular sets, but it’s all about smallness, a world inside this kid’s bedroom (or, in one scene, insides his fannypack). There is no bombast at all. It’s just a sweet, simple movie.
It’s also unusually down-to-Earth. Omri is not an adorable bowl-cut child star moppet, or a precocious miniature adult, he’s a normal, gawky kid. Maybe a nerd, but too young to know it. Even when skateboarding he has no delusions of being cool. Coolness does not seem like something he yearns for. His idea of attainable cool is wearing two watches at the same time. I guess he must have some envy of coolness, because when a kid with purple hair shaved on the sides steals his money Omri yells angrily, “You don’t deserve that hair!” If he had that hair he would make it proud.
Even his teenage brothers (including Vincent Kartheiser from ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE), who are more outgoing, have a pretty dorky obsession that only kids would have: they keep begging their dad to build a skylight in their room. The one thing I can’t figure out is why one of them gave Omri an antique cabinet for his birthday. How did they know that was a gift he would enjoy? And is that sweet, because they understand him, or sad, because they know their brother is a cupboard-loving weirdo?
Little Bear is scared of this giant boy at first, then he comes to befriend him, but seeing him as “Great Spirit,” since he’s a giant with the power to snatch him from his world (yes, the toys exist as humans on some other plane or timeline). Then there’s an incident where Omri brings an older Mohawk Chief (George Randall, CON AIR) to life in a clever ploy to get Little Bear a bow. The Chief sees giant Omri and falls over dead. Little Bear is non-judgmental about it at first, understanding that the man was old and at the end of his days. But when Omri is scared and not wanting to deal with the consequences by burying him he gets enraged at the dumb kid. “Do not use magics you do not understand.”
That’s the interesting thing about this story: it really is about the ethics of using this magic cupboard. It’s not dangerous in the sense of cloning dinosuars, but it’s another kind of playing God. They’re snatching these people out of their own lives, transporting them to a place where they become fragile. For a while Omri gives in to his friend Patrick (Rishi Bhat) and starts playing around, making a cowboy (David Keith, WHITE OF THE EYE) for example. (Steve Coogan also has a small role as a soldier toy.) But eventually he has to learn that what he’s doing is unfair to these people. I was a little nervous when Omri was clearly considering cupboarding a female toy Indian to be Little Bear’s wife. Which, in the reality of this movie, basically means kidnapping some poor lady. Luckily Little Bear schools Omri on why that would be wrong (apparently not what happens in the book, though!)
Omri has a bunch of toys that you’d think would be more exciting to him than cowboys and Indians. For example here he has a bunch of monsters and shit, and I think he’s holding Lord Zed, who we saw two weeks ago in MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE:
So why doesn’t he bring those type of toys to life? Actually, he does. This is what happens with his STAR WARS/JURASSIC PARK/STAR TREK/ROBOCOP crossover:
A pretty funny scene that convinces him to exercise restraint so his toys don’t all kill each other. What good are a bunch of action figures in dead body poses?
I think this scene does count as a continuity error, though. This should probly be submitted to IMDb: the movie has a theme of growing up, rites of passage, etc. Little Bear talks about the ritual he was doing when he arrived, he was leaving his nephew alone in the woods, he would have to survive alone for the season and when he comes back to the village he will be a man. At the end Little Bear tells Omri that if he was his nephew it would be almost time to bring him into the woods. In other words, he’s almost a man.
But if he’s seen ROBOCOP, he’s already a man!
Okay, I know, he’s probly just seen one of the cartoons or, I’m afraid, ROBOCOP 3. Fair enough. Maybe it’s not a goof.
There’s one kinda fucked up part in this movie that I feel I should mention. One of his older brothers has a pet rat that is kind of a looming threat throughout the movie, you just know he could get out and eat Little Bear’s head like a piece of delicious cheese. Sometimes he roams the house in a hamster ball, so to get back at his brother Omri kicks the ball hard, sending the rat down the stairs, bouncing around and spinning. It really seems like it could’ve killed the rat or at least broken him. But the movie doesn’t acknowledge this. It’s more like “All right Omri, way to stand up for yourself!”
It’s interesting to me that this came in the same summer as POCAHONTAS. That’s two Summer of ’95 family films dealing with Native American cultures. I don’t think this made people as uncomfortable as POCAHONTAS did. It wasn’t based on historical figures, and only really dealt with one Native character, outside of his regular life, so there was less to get wrong or take artistic license with. On the other hand it’s another depiction dealing with Native Americans as strictly existing in the past, and in what could be considered a demeaning context as playthings for a little white boy. Plus, they kept that title from the book, even though at the time I think people were moving away from the inaccurate term “Indian” (though it’s kind of in favor again now). I wonder if that was part of why Omri’s best friend Patrick is descended from India.
When you read about Litefoot they always say that he’s a rapper. And I never knew him in that capacity but I looked him up, and even in the era of this movie he was pretty hardcore. The white man is mentioned in alot of his songs, and not in a real positive context, in my opinion. Actually hearing some of his music makes me realize this is like Ice Cube doing a family movie when he was still young and angry. I mean, Cube’s style definitely seems to be a big influence on him:
I bring this up to say he’s not some chump, he makes sure it’s a respectful portrayal. It was important to him to depict accurate Iroquois customs. There are little jokes about people mixing up different tribes, and references to their differences. Little Bear is an admirable character, but still gets to be funny, even though the cowboy gets to be the doofus.
Also, Omri’s friendship with Little Bear causes him to want to learn about the Iroquois and check out all the library books about them. He has little talks with his teacher about them. The movie doesn’t deal with genocide head on like POCAHONTAS did, but it assumes the kids know about it. There’s a crushing scene where Omri assures Little Bear his tribe will remain “a great people,” but can’t bring himself to totally lie, and tries to break it to him gently that “it’s not always so good.” Also, we know that Little Bear’s wife died of smallpox.
I want to mention there was another prominent Native American character in the Summer of ’95: Joe Lambert, one of the cops in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE. His heritage isn’t ever pointed out or important to the plot, he’s just a good cop who happens to be played by Graham Greene.
THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD was directed by Yoda/Miss Piggy/Cookie Monster/C.O. from THE BLUES BROTHERS himself, Frank Oz. I think he’s a better puppeteer than director, but in this case his sensitivity, his effects expertise and I think even his squareness really serve the movie well. There’s an un-self consciousness and sincerity to it that I really appreciate. I guess some other people don’t. If you look up the kid on IMDb you’ll find a bunch of wonderful human beings saying he’s ugly and the worst actor ever, but fuck ’em. I like how not-Hollywood he is. The movie respects his humanity so much that it ends on a dramatic slow rotation around his face as he sits in class trying not to be too sad about sending Little Bear back home. And the score by Randy Edelman swells with just as much melodrama as his music in DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY and DRAGONHEART and the thousands of emotional trailer moments those have been re-used for.
The screenplay is by Melissa Mathison, who wrote THE BLACK STALLION and E.T. It would be ridiculous to compare this one to E.T. in quality, and at first glance it doesn’t seem like the same type of movie, but if you think about it they’ve got alot in common. They both have a young boy, one who’s unusually true to life, who makes friends with an incredible being from another world, keeps him a secret, they teach each other things. He goes to school, can’t think about anything else, rushes home to see his friend again. He is close to his mom (Lindsay Crouse, HOUSE OF GAMES) although he also has a dad in this one (Richard Jenkins, BLUE STEEL). He learns about death and responsibility. He must accept having to say goodbye to his friend.
Also you could say this reaching in with his fingertip business is a reference to E.T.:
At least if you never heard of the Sistine Chapel.
All these elements come together to make a humble little unpretentious but effective movie. At the end when Omri imagines standing with a life-size Little Bear it’s shocking to me to realize how small that kid is. And that means it’s been working. I’ve been seeing him tower over us for most of the movie, and I’ve been buying into it.
THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD did not make back its budget at the box office. It opened at 6th place, behind POCAHONTAS in its fourth week. Of course, who was gonna see a new kids movie when UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY also opened. I mean, be serious. Of course it was a bomb.
Scardino had already been in SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, but his only film after this was MARVIN’S ROOM. Litefoot (who debuted in this film) was at least a little more prolific. Highlights include the sidekick Ascalante in KULL THE CONQUEROR and Nightwolf in MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION. He wasn’t acting for most of the last decade, but last year he was in an episode of House of Cards. Supposedly he lives in Seattle now. Or did at one point.
Oz’s subsequent films haven’t been as family or special effects oriented. They include THE STEPFORD WIVES (remake) and DEATH AT A FUNERAL (original).
Mathison has only written two movies since: KUNDUN in 1997 and Spielberg’s upcoming THE B.F.G.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.