For starters, virtually no groundwork is laid before 9-year-old Omri (Hal Scardino) receives for his birthday what turns out to be a magical cupboard that can bring his action figures to life.
The truth is, little Omri has rather limited aspirations. Though the cabinet works on more extravagant items, from RoboCop to Darth Vader, he becomes enamored of a 3-inch-tall Indian named Little Bear (played by recording artist Litefoot, in his acting debut). Hiding Little Bear’s existence, Omri tries to establish a home for his new pal — who considers him a godlike giant — using the cupboard to turn items like a plastic knight’s axe into a lifelike tool.
Omri shares the secret only with his friend Patrick (Rishi Bhat), who uses the device to animate his
own toy figure, a surly Texas cowboy named Boone (David Keith). At first hostile toward Little Bear (cowboys and Indians, after all), Boone eventually warms to him, forging an unlikely friendship.
Unfortunately, the little episodes that develop surrounding the figures don’t prove all that exciting or even interesting, and the only suspense involves how long Omri will keep Little Bear in this awkward setting before realizing he must send him home.
Omri does learn about Native American cultures from Little Bear, but the lesson isn’t exactly overwhelming, nor are the movie’s other elements. Much of that may have to do with Scardino, who isn’t a particularly appealing child actor and doesn’t convey the necessary sense of wonder.
Perhaps to obscure those shortcomings, “Indian in the Cupboard” is one of the most over-scored movies in recent memory, with Randy Edelman’s soundtrack swelling to huge crescendos in even the smallest moments. Clearly, someone was working a bit too hard here to try to compen sate for missing magic.
Technically, Industrial Light & Magic’s effects cleverly capture the little-guy-in-big-room scenario, though the standard apparently hasn’t advanced much since “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”
Litefoot cuts a striking figure as Little Bear, but proves (pardon the expression) a bit wooden, while Keith hams it up merrily in the pic’s toothiest performance as Boone. As Omri’s parents, Richard Jenkins and Lindsay Crouse have little to do.
“Indian in the Cupboard” is yet another example that Hollywood can make movies in which critics of sex and violence can find nothing to complain about. It’s also a reminder that “family values” can be, well, kind of boring.