The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
Written by Melissa Mathison
Directed by Frank Oz
Frank Oz is one of my favorite comedy directors of the 1980s and 90s. I consider Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and What About Bob? among my favorite movies from that period. He was also no stranger to making family-friendly fare with The Muppets Take Manhattan directorial credit as well as being one of the top performers among Jim Henson’s Muppet troupe. That’s what makes The Indian in the Cupboard feel so strangely disappointing and lifeless. The movie isn’t horrible, but it feels like it’s missing a critical emotional component that ends up leaving the picture ultimately forgettable.
Omri receives a small cupboard from his brother on his ninth birthday, something discovered on the street and a last-minute gift. Omri also gets a plastic Native American figurine from his friend Patrick. After going through his mom’s box of old keys, the boy discovers one that locks the cupboard. He places the doll inside, locks it, and goes to sleep. A noise from the cupboard wakes him up in the early morning, and he discovers the figurine has come to life, the soul of a real Native from the past transferred into the tiny form. Omri becomes enamored with his new friend and tries to make his life as a miniaturized person in the modern world as comfortable as possible. He runs into problems when trying to keep the Native, named Little Bear secret from his friends and the adults in his life.
Melissa Mathison was the screenwriter of E.T., a fantastic film appropriate for kids & families yet deals with complex themes. This was thirteen years removed from that film, and it seems there was some of the magic missing from this adaptation. I also have to wonder how related that was to having Frank Oz direct rather than Steven Spielberg. Watching this movie, I could see how Oz was attempting to ape Spielberg’s gaze of wonder technique to middling results. There is such a dull flatness to the look of the picture that it creates barriers to the audience engaging in the magic & wonder that this story should evoke.
The story doesn’t shy away from dealing with substantial content and doesn’t gloss over the history and media portrayal of Native peoples. Little Bear sees Western films made that showcase the wholesale slaughter of Natives, both a glimpse at the future to come for Indigenous people and how the lives of Natives were made acceptable cannon fodder. Omri uses his cupboard and the key to summon some other people from time and has to deal with the power he has to steal them away. One of these people is stricken with a heart attack when they see the gigantic child and drop dead. The movie doesn’t run away from the dark reality of death, and how, when you have power, it is very easy to abuse it and harm other people.
Some moments touch on colonialism and Omri learning that people like Little Bear were destined to be wiped out in large numbers by Europeans. A cowboy from the 19th century is summoned, and Little Bear and quickly gets caught up in conflict with him. Omri has to come between the two, and eventually, Little Bear and the cowboy come to a mutual understanding and respect of each other. The script even has Little Bear correcting Omri for making a teepee when he’s Iroquois, and they lived in longhouses. As an elementary school teacher who has a unit devoted to correcting common myths and misconceptions about Native people, this was wonderful. However, I just wish there had been more life in the story and the characters so that it didn’t all hit with a thud.