A retrospective essay
Frank Oz is probably most known for his iconic contribution to the Star Wars franchise as Yoda. Star Wars fans with kids probably also know him as the former voice of Grover on Sesame Street, but the man is someone I consider to be a national treasure. I think it takes a true cinephile to appreciate his contributions to film off-screen. As much as I'd love to write an in-depth essay about Oz though, I'd much rather talk about one of the most underrated children's films of all time - a film he just so happened to direct: The Indian in the Cupboard.
On July 14, 1995, The Indian in the Cupboard was released to critical acclaim. Unfortunately, it was a total box office bomb. Plans to produce several other films based on the book series, written by Lynne Reid Banks, were scrapped, and the film disappeared into obscurity...for most anyway.
I first stumbled upon the film when I was 5 or 6. It was actually one of the first VHS tapes I received as a gift. I'll never forget it because it came with a miniature (or in this case, a regular) version of the Indian from the film, as well as a key. That's one of the biggest things I can say that I appreciate about this film in hindsight. What most might see as a routine marketing ploy, I see as encouragement from the filmmakers to believe in anything. It's an extremely confident notion, even in the aftermath of an underwhelming theatrical release; however belief is only one of the film's many themes.
The film follows Omri (played by Hal Scardino), a nine year old boy who receives a cupboard on his birthday. Noticing that the cupboard has a lock but no key, Omri's mother lets him sift through her collection of antique keys to find one that'll fit. Interestingly the only one that does fit also happens to be the key that his mother received from her mother before she died. He doesn't think much of the cupboard or the key at first, until he realizes that anything he locks inside the cupboard comes to life when he unlocks it.
He first discovers this with a small plastic Indian his friend Patrick also gives him on his birthday. The Indian, who we come to know as Little Bear (played by Litefoot), is at first scared of Omri. Thinking him to be a giant, he's reluctant to talk to him, until he realizes that he's just a kid.
As the film goes on, Omri and Little Bear develop a relationship that mirrors a parent and a child; however, in this case Omri is the parent and Little Bear is the child. Omri eventually comes to terms with how fragile human life is, as well as what it means to be responsible for another person. Considering just how little we know about Omri before we meet him, it's admittedly odd that he's taught these lessons at such an early point in his life. But the more I've thought about it over the years, the more I realize that this brief window into his life is an allegory for so much more.
You don't have to be a religious person to see that Omri is essentially God in the film. I mean, it can't be a coincidence his name is one letter off of the prefix, "omni." Even though it takes a while for Little Bear to warm up to him, Omri cares for him unconditionally the same way God loves us.
Now, I wouldn't be doing this retrospective justice if I didn't say that this film might not hold up that well particularly because of the use of the term, Indian, which some consider it to be derogatory. But depending on who you ask, the word has various origins. One such origin is from an alleged journal entry from Christopher Columbus, in which he referred to the natives as "una gente in Dios," which roughly translates to "A people in GOD." The "in dios" part of the phrase is where the nickname evolved from. It's with that origin in mind however, that I believe that the film's celestial themes become even clearer.
Despite the initial fear and worship of Omri, Little Bear eventually comes to understand that he and Omri are the same. They both live and breathe, and despite their physical differences and their backgrounds, they're both made in the same image.
While I think many of the film's themes are timeless, there are some aspects of it that honestly aren't. Little Bear is the most overt example; however, as mentioned before, I believe his presence is intentional. One other example is the writing. Some of it just isn't good. There's one scene in which Omri is going to the hardware store for his dad, and then he gets mugged by an older kid. Instead of fighting back though, Omri yells to the kid, "You don't deserve that haircut!" It's a line that's as laughable as it is dated.
Another noticeable issue some may have, especially revisiting the film today, is the cupboard. In the film, Omri's given the gift unironically by his brothers, but in what world is that a good gift? Fortunately, Omri's a very thankful and resourceful kid, so he loves it, but it's the one aspect of the film that baffles me the most. It's so integral to the plot (and the title) that most won't bother to question it, but to this day I still do.
Despite its antiquated aesthetic though, all of the film's effects hold up quite well. Twenty-five years later and the effects look as good, if not a little better, than some of today's big budget blockbusters. That's an impressive feat considering the technology that was available at the time. All of the scenes with smaller characters, and even ones where they stand beside larger characters look incredible.
Now, for some reason or another, this film has been forgotten in time. Very few people that I know have seen it, and most that I've shared it with have mixed feelings about it. While I'll continue to share it, I'm also kind of glad that I haven't met anyone who loves it as much as I do. It makes it all the more special.
I acknowledge that it isn't a perfect film, but it is a magical one. You see, there are a handful of movies in existence that I believe capture the magic of cinema and that can never be remade: The Wizard of Oz, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future, etc. The same way all of those films are certifiable classics, so too is The Indian in the Cupboard. Even through its antithetical success, it mirrors its most basic message by proving that great things can come in a variety of sizes, especially when you least expect them.