At first, "Radio Flyer" looks to be a pleasant, if innocuous, story about childhood. The father of two, Mike (Tom Hanks) is spinning a yarn for his kids about his youth, a time of juvenile ups and downs spent with kid brother Bobby, their divorced mother and a dog called Shane. Then Mike goes back in time, to California, 1969. The real story becomes apparent. Something new -- and bracing -- takes over. Something frightening, something close to home.
The younger Mike (now played by Elijah Wood) and Bobby (Joseph Mazzello) live in their own world. As the older Mike recalls, there are several things all kids know -- and adults don't. For one thing, monsters exist. For another, you can actually kill someone by aiming your cocked fingers at them and making a gun noise. There are other childhood secrets: You can achieve any feat of strength merely by wearing a superhero cape, or parachute from any height clutching an umbrella. The biggest secret, he says, is the ability to fly.
The kids' mother (Lorraine Bracco) loves her children but is completely unaware of their imaginative universe. When she remarries, she has no idea what new monster she has brought into their lives. Mike and Bobby, stalwart allies against the treacherous adult world, don't dare bring her up to speed on the man (Adam Baldwin) they call the king of all monsters.
Bracco, working a summer-long, double-shift job as a waitress, has no idea what is happening. It's better not to reveal any more than this but, for the kids, the situation gets more desperate. Their plans to build a flying machine from their Radio Flyer wagon, which they call The Big Idea, becomes something of a race against time.
What counts in "Radio Flyer" is its evocative texture. Director Richard Donner and screenwriter David Mickey Evans have created a very real, tragic world between the brothers. The help they give each other -- and the mature love that develops between them -- is immensely touching. When things are going wrong, they instinctively reach for each other. At school one day, their stomachs suddenly start hurting. They mutually sense something's amiss. With instant agreement, they rush home to find out what it is. They're both far too young to have the worries they do. By default, Mike is Bobby's protector, and Bobby is haunted by a troubling vision.
"He knew about a special secret all kids know," says the older Mike. "Only he knew more. A lot more."
What Bobby knows is the poignant crux of this movie. This drama details what he and Mike, with their limited resources, do about that knowledge. As the children, Wood and Mazzello give unforgettable performances. There's a powerful sibling relationship between them that seems more than merely scripted. There's also much in this movie about what flying represents, and what building this Big Idea is really about. But that's for you to find out. It all makes for a soaring -- and tearful -- ending.
One of the hardest things to capture on film is childhood wonder; even harder is childhood trauma. Radio Flyer earns points for trying earnestly to capture both, though the movie is only fitfully effective at meshing entertainment values with the knotty issue of child abuse.
The young screenwriter David Mickey Evans gives the semi-autobiographical story a startling urgency. Two boys -- eleven-year-old Mike (Elijah Wood) and his eight-year-old brother, Bobby (Joseph Mazzello) -- move from New Jersey to California in 1969 to start a new life with their divorced mother, Mary, compassionately played by Lorraine Bracco. Mary soon marries a man (Adam Baldwin) who calls himself the King. Things go well until the stepfather starts drinking and beating Bobby. Mike helps his brother hide the bruises because neither boy wants to ruin things for Mary, a waitress who's mostly out working double shifts.
When the situation at home becomes intolerable, Mike and Bobby devise a plan: They will turn their wagon -- a Radio Flyer -- into a magic rocket that will carry Bobby to freedom. The adult Mike, given subtle nuances by Tom Hanks, who also supplies the narration, reminds us that we must see the fantastical plan from a child's point of view. That's a tough leap to make, given the literal direction of Richard Donner, who puts too much emphasis on the transformation of the wagon and too little on the frayed nerves of the boys. Donner excels at action (Superman, all three Lethal Weapons), but he lacks the childhood empathy of a Spielberg or a Truffaut. Despite the flaws, Evans's thoughtful script and the uncliched performances of Wood and Mazzello exert a powerful grip. The film stays with you.
The majority of people I know who've watched Radio Flyer have one of two reactions to it; they either love it or hate it. Me? I loved it. It's funny to watch it again after all these years and discover that Elijah Wood turned out to be the breakthrough actor instead of Joseph Mazzello. Mazzello seemed to have a bit more going for him at the time and with Jurassic Park under his belt, his future appeared to be a blockbuster one. Well, he's still a damn fine actor and we all know what projects Wood has gone on to, so prepare yourself to step back to the beginning where two careers formed.
Narrated by Tom Hanks as one of the grown up brothers, young Mike (Wood) and little brother Bobby (Mazzello) are doing their best to cope with the hardships of living with their recently divorced mother (Lorraine Bracco). Mom is one heck of a loving figure who works her hide off to make sure the family stays fed, clothed and with the occasional extra. There's a whole lotta safety in the group, but as with all things in life, things change. Despite catching the attention of the local sheriff (John Heard), Mom has already taken a liking to The King (Adam Baldwin). No, we're not talking Elvis here. We're talking about a man so conniving and representative of the kind of person your own parents never wanted you to bring home that he doesn't need a name.
Unfortunately for Bobby, The King is a predator who seeks out the weak or anybody he sees as weak and preys on them. He sees Bobby as just such a weakling and takes to inflicting bodily harm on the boy whenever he comes home drunk or is upset by something the lads have done. Once Mike discovers this secret, however, he vows to help make things right. Their plan? To take their wagon (a Radio Flyer) and, powered by their imagination, turn it into the perfect escape vehicle; a plane for one. Filled with heart, love and the inevitable death of innocence when one grows into adulthood, Radio Flyer takes on some heavy issues and delivers some performances that won't soon be forgotten.
The problem with this film stems from some mixed messages. Why didn't the children ever tell anybody about the abuse? Should they have attempted to handle things themselves? Many would object and believe they should have spoken up. If that's the case, however, we would have far fewer incidents of abuse in our society. People, especially children, don't always speak up and this part of the plot rings true here. Actually, parents might even be inclined to discuss this issue with their children. The other problem is with the film's ending. What really happened? Was it all in their imagination? Was it symbolism? Unfortunately, due to what I've read, it sounds like the script was altered during filming, so the ending is really left open to the viewer's interpretation. The writer had something else in mind.
One last thing that surprised me was Adam Baldwin's performance. After having seen him more recently in Joss Whedon's Firefly, it's difficult to see him in a role that's so unlikable. He's convincing as a bully, though, and fit the bill perfectly. As for my opinion of the ending, I identified with the imagination and, well, came to my own conclusions. I won't spoil it for anybody, but I will say that if you're interested, there are plenty of theories out there if you're so inclined. Despite the finale, there is much to like here and Radio Flyer is worth discovering.