This is one of those movies that has a personal history with yours truly. Some time in my grade 8 year, I was home with a flu that gave me a temperature of 102 (that's about 39 for those who use celsius), and a whole week off school. My Mom rented this movie for me, and I watched it so many times through that week that I consider it to count towards the collection of movies that made me appreciate fantasy altogether. I loved this movie when I was 13, but once that flu was done, I never really came back to it until now.
The story goes that on Omri's (Hal Scardino) ninth birthday, his older brother gives him an antique cupboard, which he takes a real liking to. You come to like Omri pretty quickly with how polite and kind he is, but I always kind of thought it was odd that a 9-year-old boy was so into something you might find at Pier 1 Imports He also gets a Native American figure from his best friend, the somewhat less likeable Patrick (Rishi Bhat). He's not what you'd call a bad kid, but he is honestly a bit of a brat through a lot of the film. Going back to Omri, one should probably know that he does have one extreme moment where you kind of want to reach through the screen and smack him, involving a rat in a ball. So he's not perfect either, but in reality, no rat was harmed in the making of this.
Anyway, getting on with it, Omri's Mom gives him a key from her key collection that just so happens to work with the small cupboard. He puts the "Indian" inside, and locks it in for the night - really just to put something in the cupboard and test it out. He soon comes to realize that whatever plastic thing he puts in there turns real, when he opens the cupboard back up to reveal an Iroquois Native by the name of Little Bear (Litefoot). It turns out the figurine has his own personal history as well, which really adds something interesting to the whole story. The figure doesn't come to life just confused, it seems that the figure develops a sort of spirit that comes from some specific place and time. In this case, Little Bear was in the midst of the French and Indian War in the 1700s. So it's kind of neat that each toy/figure has its own backstory.
Omri befriends Little Bear, and decides to keep him alive in his room as a secret, all the while learning of Little Bear's culture. Omri finds himself helping out quite a bit, giving him things like tools and weapons along with materials to build a longhouse that he miraculously hides behind his toy chest. He soon realizes, however, that bringing these characters to life isn't just playtime fun. First, he brings some other characters to life like Robocop and Darth Vader, only to scare himself with how dangerous these characters are. But soon enough, things get a bit deeper, and it's more than just his collection of action figures he has to consider. Through Little Bear, Omri actually (presumably) learns about things like death, and I'd even go so far as to say that by the end, the "playing God" lesson is taught in a way kids can really relate to it.
Part of the "Playing God" lesson comes from Patrick, wanting to bring a cowboy named Boone (David Keith) to life. He succeeds, and Boone adds a bit of humor to the whole thing (humor mainly aimed at kids while using curse words). The main reason for Boone's existence is to have another small character for Little Bear to play off of, but they do a good job of keeping him somewhat interesting. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that with Boone's character, there's eventually a message of peace and understanding to be taken away from the film as well. A lot of the film's general appeal happens to be that it teaches kids quite a bit in such a small span of time, but while remaining interesting. At no time does it ever feel like a lecture, it just sort of flows from one thing to another. Director Frank Oz did a great job with things here.
I tend to think that this still holds up pretty well, especially for the younger crowd. Considering the film's title (based on the book of the same name by Lynne Reid Banks), I worried this might get into that uncomfortable territory, like 'Peter Pan' did. But honestly, even this time around, it's pretty cool in teaching kids a thing or two about Native American culture - especially when you consider this particular Iroquois is played by a guy named Litefoot. This was 1995, and the filmmakers were good enough to find Litefoot for this particular role - his first role, I might add. Sadly, he'd be Nightwolf a bit later in 'Mortal Kombat: Annihilation', but it's cool that he got his foot in the door with a pretty respectable role to his own background.
On this watch-through, certain things did stick out as not so great, but there was still a special something about it. I made the connection to when I was sick, and watching this through, and the answer is simple, but perhaps a bit odd. The film is, in a word, "comfortable". It generally takes place in Omri's room, and a lot of it is just Omri's interactions with Little Bear, getting to know him. I suppose, in a way, it's a good way to transport yourself back to those times you just played with your action figures and/or dolls, and were perfectly happy doing so. I would have even felt that back when I was 13, so in a way, even at the time there was something nostalgic about it. I'd consider it very much a "comfort food" movie, if only because watching it reminds me of laying on the couch, wrapped up in a blanket, and consuming some hot, chicken noodle soup.