Though not as inspired as the recent remake of "The Little Princess" or "Searching for Bobby Fischer," the film adaptation of "The Indian in the Cupboard" is still a most enjoyable family film in the best sense - it's a fantasy that both kids and their parents can enjoy.
For those unfamiliar with Lynne Reid Banks' novel, the story has a young boy named Omri receiving an old wooden cupboard for his birthday, as a display case for his toy action-figures. To go with it, Omri's mother gives him one of her collection of antique keys - and together, they create magic. Omri soon discovers that when a toy is placed in the cupboard and the key is turned, the figure comes to pint-size life.
There is a space-time-science-fiction element at work here, as the toys come to life by somehow kidnapping someone from the real-life past to embody these 3-inch figures. So, when Omri's plastic Indian comes to life, he explains that he was an 18th-century Iroquois named Little Bear, and he was walking through the woods with his nephew when he suddenly found himself in this huge (to him) cupboard.
Later, a cowboy from the 1870s is brought to life, as is an English medic from World War I - and even a dinosaur and Darth Vader! (Since Darth Vader is a fictional character, it kind of makes you wonder where his real-life counterpart comes from, doesn't it?)
But at its heart, "The Indian in the Cupboard" is about imagination and coming of age, and, if you will, putting away childish things. Omri must develop a more mature sense of responsibility if he is to help Little Bear integrate into his new surroundings, and, in turn, Little Bear must help Omri begin to grow up.
The screenplay, by Melissa Mathison ("The Black Stallion," "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial") is clear-eyed and sharp-minded, loaded with wonderful little touches that realistically portray childhood. And director Frank Oz ("Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "What About Bob?") has a strong visual sense that enlivens what is a fairly static setting. But Oz plays it a bit too softly and allows the pacing to lag from time to time.
Fortunately, his lead actor, young Hal Scardino as Omri, is marvelous - neither a child model nor a nerdy geek, Scardino seems like a real 9-year-old boy. And that's rather unusual for a Hollywood movie.
The rest of the cast is good, though their characters tend to be underdeveloped. Musical performer Litefoot is well-cast as stoic, noble Little Bear, veterans Lindsay Crouse and Richard Jenkins are solid as Omri's parents and Rishi Bhat is OK as the boy's best friend, though they are all fairly faceless.
This is made especially evident when David Keith as Boone, the cowboy, comes on the scene. Keith's characterization of a boozy cowpoke with a big heart - so big that he's known as "Boo-Hoo Boone" - is hilarious, touching and vibrant, so much so that he makes the rest of the cast pale in comparison.
A strong injection of Keith's brand of energy could have made the film a lot more lively. But as it is, occasional sluggishness and all, this is a superior family picture.
"The Indian in the Cupboard" is rated PG for violence and mild profanity.