A ten-year-old boy named Omri gets an antique cupboard for his birthday. The cupboard looks commonplace but Omri soon discovers it has magical powers. Put a toy figurine inside, close the door, turn the key, and presto! When you unlock the cupboard, a tiny living, breathing, flesh-and-blood creature stands in the toy's place. Close the door again, turn the key, and when you open it, you find the original plastic toy.
That's the premise of Lynne Reid Banks's children's novel The Indian in the Cupboard, and of the feeble attempt by screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who scripted E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) and director Frank Oz (the master Muppeteer who started out giving orders to Kermit and Miss Piggy but eventually moved on to bossing around humans in films such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and What About Bob?) to retell Banks's tale aided by millions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art special effects from Industrial Light & Magic. The filmmakers (or rather, the ILM team members) successfully pull off the visual sleight-of-hand: You'll believe Omri has a miniature Iroquois Indian named Little Bear living with him. But Oz blends the optical trickery into the mix so smoothly that it barely registers. In his zeal to prevent the special-effects tail from wagging the movie dog, the director's low-key approach makes some truly impressive technical feats feel run-of-the-mill. You constantly have to remind yourself that not every kid has a three-inch-tall playmate building campfires in his bedroom.
Unfortunately the director's restraint does not also extend to the film's incessant politically correct moralizing. Where is it written that children's movies cannot merely provide entertainment but must sermonize as well? The Indian in the Cupboard lectures about the noble savagery of Native Americans, the dangers of playing God (presumably Omri symbolizes modern science, all wide-eyed curiosity with no sense of responsibility), and the importance of everybody -- cowpokes and Injuns included -- just getting along. Having fun is not a priority.
Perhaps the filmmakers were just being faithful to Banks's book, but the movie would have been a lot more fun to watch had they played up the sense of wonder Omri experiences when he discovers the cabinet's secret. If the cupboard works on human, animal, and space-monster toys (all of which the movie shows us), what would it do to a normally inanimate object, like a hammer, or a bullet, or a TV remote control? And if the cupboard can bring to life a toy Indian, why doesn't Omri construct scale models of deceased family members and reanimate them? Imagine the look on Dad's face when, instead of giving him a tie or a pair of gold-toe socks for Christmas, Omri reaches into his pocket and gently pulls out Grandpa!
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The Indian in the Cupboard rarely ventures outside Omri's bedroom. Oz and Mathison solemnly grind out their predictable story, shrinking the narrative to fit their agenda and in the process concocting one of the most unimaginative fables imaginable. (Are the makers of all films involving miniature people contractually obligated to include at least one scene of a cute domestic pet terrorizing the Lilliputian protagonists? Or to uphold the convention that there can only be one key to a magic device, and that said key will eventually be lost at an inopportune moment, and found again just in the nick of time?) Maybe they were cowed by Little Bear's admonition to Omri that "you should not make magic that you don't understand!" This film plays it safe and makes no magic at all.