'Radio Flyer' Misses the Boat

Two boys look to their red wagon for a fantasy escape from their troubled home life

COLUMBIA Pictures is publicizing comments by child-abuse experts who support "Radio Flyer," its new movie about two young boys coping with an abusive stepfather.

The film has "resonance, honesty and emotional potency," according to one authority. It is "evocative, powerful and positive," crows another. And so forth, including one murky statement that after seeing the film, "no one will want to return to the days when children had to overcome abuse with the help of the adult world."

Where is help to come from, one might ask, if not from the adult world? It's hard to imagine what the answer might be, but one thing is certain: The adult world plays little credible part in "Radio Flyer," and the world of children is displayed with equal obliviousness to actions and emotions that ring true. The film attempts to blend Steven Spielberg-style fantasy with courageous exploration of a disturbing social problem. Neither side of the equation is intelligently handled, however, and the movie's u ltimate reliance on wish-fulfillment is downright irresponsible.

"Radio Flyer" begins with 11-year-old Mike and eight-year-old Bobby traveling with their divorced mother from New Jersey to California, where they hope for a new start and a better life. Everything goes well in their new home, except for an occasional scrap with some tough kids nearby, until Mom falls in love and remarries.

Her new husband turns out to be a hard-drinking lout whose idea of a good evening is swilling beer, losing his temper, and taking out his rage by assaulting Bobby, the most helpless member of the family.

The boys keep his attacks a secret so Mom won't be upset. When their stepfather isn't around, meanwhile, they do the things kids always do, especially in movies. They have local adventures, play with their pets, and dream ambitious dreams - mostly about flying, a subject that fascinates them both, especially since their new neighborhood once included a legendary kid named Fisher who turned his bicycle into a flying machine.

The childish horseplay and airborne imagery of "Radio Flyer" are instantly familiar from Mr. Spielberg's films about youthful shenanigans, including "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," his classic of the genre. There's so much of this pleasant frivolity that the story's child-abuse element gets pushed aside for surprisingly long periods of time. But it always returns, and it's obvious that the filmmakers consider it the heart of their movie. This makes it all the more troubling that it's so incompetently handl ed.

If you were a child threatened with abuse, and you saw "Radio Flyer," what would the movie say to you? Here's its advice:

1. Don't tell your mother.

2. Don't tell the friendly police officer you've met, even though he suspects something is wrong and sincerely wants to help.

3. Do lots of wishing and magical thinking.

4. Make a working airplane out of your Radio Flyer wagon, and ...

5. Fly away into the night sky, never to face challenges in the real world again.

"Radio Flyer" is a fantasy, of course, so maybe we're meant to take its wish-fulfillment ending not literally but metaphorically. If so, what's being symbolized? One thing is escapism, the notion that real problems can be dreamed and fantasized into nonexistence. Another is suicide - which may seem like a far-fetched interpretation, except that the film invites us to think of it, with references to the extreme dangerousness of Bobby's attempt to fly, and the certainty of his "never coming back" from his Radio Flyer voyage.

"Radio Flyer" was written by newcomer David Mickey Evans and directed by Richard Donner, whose credit list includes good pictures like "The Omen" and "Superman," bad pictures like "Inside Moves," and pictures you don't want to think about too much, like all three installments of the "Lethal Weapon" series.

He seems to intend "Radio Flyer" as a constructive contribution to the much-needed dialogue on child abuse; in any case, blame for its wrong-headedness should not be placed entirely on him and his associates. Responsibility lies more broadly with the fixation on fantasy that such tastemakers as Spielberg and George Lucas have fostered since the mid-'70s in superhits like the "Indiana Jones" and "Star Wars" pictures.

Beyond this, the fault lies with today's society in general, which has responded to the siren song of sheer escapism with all too much enthusiasm.

Escapism is a legitimate part of entertainment as long as it's a part, not an obsession and an end in itself. When the formulas of Spielbergian superficiality get applied to a dead-serious subject like child abuse, priorities have become desperately skewed. Spielberg didn't make "Radio Flyer," but Mr. Donner has worked with him ("The Goonies") and learned from him, and Spielberg's astounding success in recent years has surely helped to set the stage for it. The time has come for some deep thinking by tho se in Hollywood - and by ourselves, as we watch Hollywood's products in our local movie theaters - about whether the influential art of filmmaking should continue in its present, dangerously frivolous directions.

Among the performers who have lent their talents to "Radio Flyer" are Lorraine Bracco as the mother, John Heard as the police officer, and an uncredited Tom Hanks as the narrator. Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzello are appealing as Mike and Bobby, respectively.

Veteran cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs did the slick camera work for the picture, which was produced by Lauren Shuler-Donner and lists Michael Doug-las, Rick Bieber, and Mr. Evans as executive producers. Hans Zimmer composed the overzealous music.

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