The Indian in the Cupboard

on July 14, 1995 by Lael Loewenstein
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   It's never a good sign at a children's movie when the kids are heading in large numbers to use the restrooms. The best films, like "E.T.," can keep even the most listless child rapt; "The Indian in the Cupboard" has no such holding power. So bland and uninspired it's hard to believe it's written by the Melissa Mathison who scripted that Spielberg work, this film showcases special effects at the expense of story and character development, encapsulating much of what's wrong today with children's entertainment.
   The story follows a boy named Omri (Hal Scardino) who on his ninth birthday receives a cupboard, which he discovers is endowed with the power to transform plastic figurines into live beings by transporting their essence through time--and so he brings to life an 18th-century Indian. Lilliputian in size compared to the boy, Little Bear (Litefoot) is at first terrified of the strange new place that is Omri's 20th-century room. But the duo soon bonds, and Omri spills his secret to best friend Patrick (Rishi Bhat). Patrick, overzealous, abuses the cupboard's powers and creates a miniature cowboy, Boone (David Keith), with the intention of using him for show-and-tell at school. Hailing from the 19th-century Wild West, Boone is used to fighting with Indians; predictably, cowboy and Indian war over control of their territory (sparking a few special effects fireworks) until they reach a modern, politically correct truce. Omni realizes using the cupboard carries too great a human cost, and he returns Little Bear and Boone to their respective centuries, supposedly having matured through this mystical experience.
   What "The Indian in the Cupboard" never adequately explains is why Omri is so desperate to have a friend. He comes from a stable family with loving parents (Richard Jenkins and Lindsay Crouse, fine actors who deserve more to do than yell "Omri!" ad nauseum off camera), so any sense of personal isolation is unwarranted. As Omri, Hal Scardino is adequate but possesses neither the charm nor the acting ability of an Elijah Wood, who might have lent saving charisma to this material. Only Native American rapper-turned-actor Litefoot manages to lend the project dignity, but by the film's conclusion no one can blame his character for wanting like--E.T. before him--to exit for home.    Starring Hal Scardino, Litefoot and Lindsay Crouse. Directed by Frank Oz. Written by Melissa Mathison. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Jane Startz. A Paramount release. Fantasy. Rated PG for mild language and brief video images of violence and sexy dancing. Running time: 96 min.
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