Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1992) Part 2

15. Radio Flyer

As I previously observed, Richard Donner seem to fall into a pattern in the late eighties and nineties, alternating between comedies and action movies. “Ladyhawke” beget “The Goonies.” “Lethal Weapon” was followed by “Scrooged.” If you disregard “Two-Fisted Tales” as a side project, “Lethal Weapon 2” was followed by “Radio Flyer.” It would be incorrect to call the film a straight-up comedy but “Radio Flyer” is a more low-key Richard Donner joint, a drama rift with childhood nostalgia and elements of magic realism. Donner almost didn’t direct it. David M. Evans’ screenplay ignited a bidding war among studios and, despite his inexperience as a director, Evans was chosen to direct his own script. After several weeks of filming, Evans’ work was considered inadequate. Production halted and was restarted with Donner at the helm and a totally new cast. This inflated the budget, which made the movie’s four million dollar box office gross even more disappointing. Yet time has been kind to “Radio Flyer” which is now regarded as a minor classic of early nineties cinema.

As his two sons have an argument over a model airplane, Mike stops them. He tells the boys a tale about his childhood with his younger brother Bobby. After a trip across country, the boys, their mother, and their German shepherd move into a suburban community. Mike watches out for Bobby, a perpetual outsider prone to flights of fancy. This becomes especially true after mom remarries. The step-father, who likes to be called the King, is an alcoholic and beats Bobby, which the brothers keep secret. Until the abuse becomes so bad, it can’t be ignored. At that point, the brothers plot an escape for Bobby, transforming their Radio Flyer wagon into an airplane.

It’s tempting to compare “The Goonies” and “Radio Flyer,” as both films concern children protagonist and a child-like sense of whimsy. But the comparison falls apart beyond that. For “Radio Flyer” is a melancholic film about nostalgia, about an adult relating his traumatic childhood through a hopeful, retroactive lens. It’s also about the value of fantasy, as a coping tool with the serious and minor ordeals of reality. It’s about the secret world children inhabit, apart from adults. Mark’s narration references the Seven Secret Rules only children understand, that are put aside in puberty and completely forgotten by adulthood. It’s about hope in a hopeless situation, bolstered by brotherly love and shared daydreams. Some critics considered the films contrast between childish flights of fancy and the real life issue of abuse in bad taste. Yet “Radio Flyer” directly concerns itself with how young children survive and process such abuse.

Mostly, it’s about the brothers. Elijah Wood plays Mike and Joseph Mazzello plays Bobby. Despite his young age, Wood already had six prior acting roles to his name. As Mike, he shows talent, depth, and understanding far beyond his years. After their father leave them, Mike considers himself the man of the house, that Bobby is his responsibility. Wood’s crystal blues eyes projects an unexpected wisdom. A moment when he prevents the mother from discovering Bobby’s bruises is especially powerful. The strength of Wood’s performance grows as “Radio Flyer” evolves as a story. Joseph Mazzello is also excellent as Bobby, managing to convey secret thoughts and hidden emotions through a brave face. The bond between the brothers is the emotional heart of the entire movie. If it wasn’t for both young actor’s performances, “Radio Flyer” might not have worked at all.

Of course, the brothers aren’t entirely alone. They have their pets. Their German Shepherd Shane accompanies them most everywhere. Shane’s soulful yellow eyes are often focused on, as the dog whines or makes little doggy noises. The boys literally believe he can talk. A really cute early scene has the dog getting playfully pushed out of the family car after farting, a moment any dog owner can relate too. Shane is protective of the boys, fighting off bullies and the step-father on several occasions. The boys love Shane dearly, as he shows the kind of faithfulness that only a dog is capable of. The movie loves Shane too. It loves him so much that it doesn’t have the heart to kill the dog off, even when it probably would’ve made sense to do so. The boys have another pet too. When moving into the new home, they find a tortoise with a chain poked through his shell. They name him Samson, for being strong enough to break the chain. The quiet respect and playfulness of a turtle is also seen in little Samson, a minor but lovably part of the film.

The boys spend most of their days away from home, out of school and hoping to avoid their step-father. Together, they build a world, full of secrets, stories, and turn-of-phrases that only they understand. The most prominent aspect of their world is the Wishing Place. A extending peak over a picturesque forest, the two boys make silent wishes atop the hill. They say they're high enough that God can hear them, which seems true sometimes. As young boys, they get up to some wild adventures. They cook a “monster juice” with repugnant ingredients in Mom’s pressure cooker which has a disastrous pay-off. Their encounters with local bullies usually end with the kids getting scared off by Shane. They go on adventures through tunnels and wooded paths. They make money by collecting golf balls or empty glass bottles. The film accurately captures the childhood ability to turn nothing into something great.

Due to pitching “Radio Flyers” directly from the eyes of the kids, the film also goes on visual flights of fancy, an element of magic realism being inserted into the story. When the boys get deeply invested in their stories or adventures, they tend to imagine wild events. The film handles this well, fantastic events appearing in quick flashes. When first opening the back shed, and meeting Samson the Turtle, both boys are startled, seeing a giant turtle leaping out of the room. After messing with a Quija board, Mike asks a question about Bigfoot. The boys imagine seeing Bigfoot at their window, a shock they quickly reel back from. The famous cryptid appearing seems perfectly reasonable to the boys. They imagine monsters under beds and in closest. These are cute sequences, showing how children inhabit a world halfway between reality and dreams.

The most extended sequence of magic realism in “Radio Flyers” is a dream Mike has. After Bobby awakes from a nightmare about the step-father, Mike dreams that the clubhouse transforms into a giant buffalo. The buffalo, moisture leaking from his eyes, steps to the window and talks, asking Mike what he can do to protect Bobby. What does the buffalo mean? While traveling through the mid-west, the boys’ mom stopped at a roadside attraction. There, they meet a single buffalo, which they believe to be the last buffalo in the world. The buffalo represents Bobby. He’s alone, an outsider. Even Mike doesn’t always understand his brother’s odd behaviors, the far away look in his eyes when they discuss flying. Mike is bullied by both the step-father and other kids. Like the buffalo, he’s one of a kind, apart from the world, always alone, even with friends.

“Radio Flyer’s” financial failure can probably be blamed upon the advertising. The trailers sold the story as a kid-friendly family adventure. And it is, in a way. But that ignores “Radio Flyer’s” serious, sometimes frank treatment of child abuse. The first time the King hits Bobby, it’s a quick motion, a sudden action that shocks both boys. The rest of the abuse happens off-screen, Mike and the audience only seeing the bruises and marks on Bobby’s body. It’s blunt enough, making it clear how horrible the abuse is without becoming exploitative. The King is played by Adam Baldwin, who reportedly hated the part. We never clearly see his face, which is always shadowed or shown from obscuring angles. This emphasizes the step-dad’s monstrous qualities to the boys, how he never seems relatable to them.

Another important part of the film is the boy’s mother. “Radio Flyer” is careful not to ever blame the mother for the abuse that happens. She works a lot, she has to, in order to support the household. The boys intentionally keep the abuse a secret, because she seems so happy with the King. When she becomes aware of the violence, she kicks her husband out… And later accepts him back. Because he promises to change, because she loves him. But he doesn’t change, as is so often the case. It’s a hard line to tow but “Radio Flyer” is successful in not limiting or incriminating the mother. Lorraine Bracco’s performance is charming, sensitive, and thoughtful.

No aspect of “Radio Flyer” is more heavily debated then its ending. After Shane is nearly killed by the King, the brothers make the decision to put their plan in action. Inspired by a local urban legend of a boy who survived riding his bike over a cliff, the boys have turned their Radio Flyer wagon into a crude aircraft. Mike is going to fly away and Bobby is going to stay. After nearly being attacked by the drunken step-father, Mike successfully flies the machine over the cliff and goes on adventures around the globe, sending his brother and mother back post-cards. Richard Donner has insisted that the ending is meant to be taken literally. Yet adult Mike’s narration clarifies that this is how he remembers events. The dream-like finale doesn’t represent reality. Instead, Mike has written a happier ending for his brother’s life. Whether Bobby crashed the wagon over the cliff or was murdered by the stepfather isn’t important. He might not even have died, instead choosing to run away from home. Either way, he’s gone. But Mike’s stories, and the fake post-cards he almost assuredly writes, keeps the spirit of his brother’s dreams alive.

“Radio Flyer” is a tear-jerker but never crosses over into maudlin… Most of the time. Donner’s direction occasionally steps into the realm of overwrought. When the boys are running back home, calling for their dog, the movie lurches into slow motion for some reason. Donner’s direction throughout is usually even handed which makes this odd moment even more off-putting. Hans Zimmer’s score isn’t a bad listen. His use of airy whistles is a nice addition to the soundtrack. However, the score often ladles the emotion on a little too thick, with repetitive strings and Zimmer’s trademark of random percussion. When a moment is supposed to be hopeful or touching, Zimmer’s score is sure to emphasize that.

Though flawed, “Radio Flyer” is a surprisingly touching and nuanced drama about childhood fantasy as an escape from harsh reality. Most negative reviews tend to stem from people not expecting the movie’s darker element or those thinking the film’s handling of its subject matter is irresponsible. Which seems to ignore that children don’t always process trauma in a logical, clear headed way. For those that appreciate “Radio Flyer’s” keen mixture of childish fantasy and painful truth, the film has become the very definition of a hidden gem, an overlooked picture that is better then its unresponsive reception implies. [Grade: A-]

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