January 24, 2010

Thoughts on Indian in the Cupboard

A brief look at the movie based on the book of the same name:

The Indian in the CupboardBased on the popular children's book by Lynne Reid Banks, this fantasy concerns a young boy who discovers that his toys are developing lives of their own--which presents him with unexpected responsibilities. Omri (Hal Scardino), a young boy growing up in Brooklyn, receives an odd variety of presents for his birthday: a wooden cabinet from his older brother, a set of antique keys from his mother Jane (Linsday Crouse), and a tiny plastic model of an Indian from his best friend Patrick (Rishi Bhat). Putting them all together, Omri locks the Indian inside the cabinet, only to be awoken by a strange sound in the middle of the night. Omri opens the cabinet to discover that the tiny Indian has come to life; it seems that he's called Little Bear (Litefoot), and he claims to have learned English from settlers in 1761. Omri hides this remarkable discovery from his mother but shares it with Patrick; as an experiment, Patrick locks a toy cowboy into the cupboard, and soon Little Bear has a companion, Boone (David Keith), though predictably, the cowboy and the Indian don't get along well at first. Omri comes to the realizations that his living and breathing playthings are also people with lives of their own, and he begins to wonder how much control he should really have over their lives.Comment:  The book may have other problems, but the movie's "problems" are mostly conceptual or thematic. The Indian is an old-fashioned "brave" from the 1750s. He's a toy who comes to life only through supernatural intervention. As a "primitive" man, he initially finds the modern world mystifying and scary.

Most of all, he's a tiny, powerless plaything whose fate a giant white boy controls. It's a great metaphor for the historic paternalism of Anglos toward Indians.

One could find a few specifics to complain about also. The Indian is half-naked, though he comes from a place with a summery climate. His name "Little Bear" is blatantly symbolic: Yes, he's little, but he's still a bear of a man.

But if you overlook the paternalistic setup, there's a lot to like. Little Bear reaches for his weapons first, but it quickly becomes clear he's a thoughtful man of peace. He teaches Omri (and the audience) a bit about the Iroquois; for instance, that they live in longhouses, not tipis. Omri brings "white" toys to life too, so it's hard to see The Indian in the Cupboard as a statement about Indians.

Most important, Little Bear ends up imparting simple but valuable lessons. Lessons along the lines of "humans aren't toys" and "it's dangerous to play with things you don't understand." Even at his small size, he begins as a naive pupil but eventually becomes a moral guide or teacher.

Overall, I'd put The Indian in the Cupboard in roughly the same category as Disney's Pocahontas. If you can't get past the cartoonish premise, you probably won't like either film. But if you can, you'll find The Indian in the Cupboard an enjoyable family film with a decent take on Indians. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

For more on the subject, see Litefoot Dispels Stereotypes and The Best Indian Movies.

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