Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 1, 2015)
Based on a children’s novel by Lynne Reid Banks, 1995’s The Indian in the Cupboard introduces us to young Omri (Hal Scardino). On his ninth birthday, he receives a mix of presents he likes and a couple that seem less than stimulating: an old cupboard and a small plastic Indian.
Omri soon discovers that these gifts offer real magic. When he puts the Indian in the cupboard, it comes to life. Named Little Bear (Litefoot), Omri bonds with his tiny new friend. We follow their unusual relationship as well as additional developments.
Cupboard falls into the category of “movies I know I saw but don’t really remember”. However, I do recall the reaction my father had to the film, as he really enjoyed it. As for me, I guess I thought it was okay, but it clearly didn’t make much of an impression on me.
20 years later, I can’t say that I view Cupboard any differently. Indeed, the decades may have left me even less enchanted with the film, as I think it offers forgettable fantasy without much purpose of its own.
Cupboard comes with a serious ET the Extra-Terrestrial vibe, which might not be a surprise given that Melissa Mathison wrote both scripts. As was also the case with Mathison’s Black Stallion, ET and Cupboard focus on pre-teen boys who grow up via their relationships with unusual figures.
In the cases of ET and Stallion, the protagonists needed substitutes for absent fathers, but that’s not the case in Cupboard - and that creates an odd dynamic. Stallion’s Alec loses his father in a shipwreck, while ET’s Elliott gets stuck with a dad who abandons the family to cavort with a new young girlfriend.
Whereas those characters needed to fill emotional spaces, that doesn’t appear to be the case with Cupboard’s Omri. As depicted here, he seems to be a resolutely normal kid who enjoys a resolutely normal life, complete with resolutely intact, loving, supportive family.
Because of this, Omri’s emotional journey doesn’t make a ton of sense. In those other Mathison films, the protagonists needed to grow and become more secure, whereas I don’t see that for Omri. He’s a perfectly normal kid with no obvious emotional deficits – why does he need Little Bear to help him “mature”? Why can’t he stay the average, good kid he is? He’s nine, for God’s sake – why does he need to “grow up” at all?
I don’t know, and the fact Omri doesn’t “need” Little Bear in the same way Elliott needed ET and Alec needed Black makes Cupboard an odd concoction. We’re asked to go on an unnecessary, perplexing emotional journey, and I don’t buy into it.
Even if I got the purpose of Omri’s trek, I’d still find Cupboard to lack much real heart. The film really does come across as ersatz ET, as director Frank Oz appears to do his darnedest to channel his inner Spielberg. Heck, both films even end with sweeping music and long close-ups of their newly mature protagonists.
The difference is that Oz can’t create something with the same magic that came naturally to Spielberg. Cupboard works overtime to enchant us but it falls far short of its goals and feels like it tries too hard. It wants us to embrace its wonder and fantasy but it all feels contrived and forced.
Oz suppresses his natural sense of humor too much as well. Oz’s best movies have come with a playful spirit almost wholly absent from Cupboard. Sure, the movie attempts comedy, usually via the grating cowboy character Boone (David Keith), but also with more moments cribbed straight from ET. These segments lack vitality and come across like awkward attempts at merriment.
One other problem I experienced came from my inability to buy into Little Bear’s reality. The Black Stallion and ET were living, breathing entities, which Little Bear is just a piece of plastic.
Sure, the film attempts to give him a backstory, but who cares? None of it exists in reality, so why should I care more about Little Bear than I do the other figures Omri briefly brings to life?
I don’t. I’m pretty good at suspending disbelief, but I just never found a reason to buy into Little Bear’s narrative. We’re intended to feel for him as though he’s a living entity, but at heart, we know he’s not – even in the movie’s universe, there’s no reason to view him as anything more than a delusional toy. That robs the movie of most – if not all – of its emotional tension.
Played in a more comedic and less self-serious manner, perhaps The Indian in the Cupboard would’ve worked better for me. Or maybe I’d have liked it more if it came from a director with a better ability to create a real sense of magic and enchantment. As it stands, Cupboard provides an oddly muddled, spiritless fantasy.