Even Scrooge would be hard-pressed to condemn Radio Flyer, a heartfelt tale about a pair of young brothers spending summer days exploring their new California neighborhood and nights dodging their abusive stepdad.
This perfectly tempered memory tale, set in a Spielbergian '60s-era subdivision, is as politically correct as you can get in these sensitive, troubled times.
The story is delivered by Tom Hanks, the movie's unbilled narrator, playing the elder brother, Mikey, now grown.
Mike is lecturing his sons on the importance of promises _ they take only a second to say but can last a lifetime _ and this leads into his promise as a young boy to protect his little brother, Bobby, from their mean-tempered stepdad, The King (Adam Baldwin).
The screen gets hazy as Radio Flyer drifts back to the '60s, and the recently separated Mary (Lorraine Bracco) packs Mikey and Bobby into the car with their dog and heads west to start life anew.
As their adventure begins, Hanks says, "History is all in the mind of the teller, and the truth is in the telling." Radio Flyer reflects that philosophy.
Screenwriter David Mickey Evans' tale lilts gently between reality and idealized fantasy, much like Fried Green Tomatoes and A Christmas Story, but it is both more idyllic and malevolent.
Mike recalls the magic of childhood with crystalline clarity. During those tender years, he recounts how monsters actually exist, fingers can shoot bullets, umbrellas can serve as parachutes and boys can fly.
Radio Flyer is all about flying; flights of fancy and the real thing. The movie takes its time getting airborne, and when it does it seems like a poor boy's E.T. But it's enchanting (if not derivative), nonetheless.
Mostly Radio Flyer is about Mike (Elijah Wood) and his little brother Bobby (Joseph Mazzello) dodging The King, running afoul of the neighborhood toughs and whipping them with the help of their wonder dog, a German shepherd named Shane.
Director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Superman) films The King only from waist down _ a kid's point of view _ which seems unfair since children look elders in the eye, and all the other adults are shot in normal perspective.
But the technique is effective. It makes The King all the more threatening. And manipulation is what Radio Flyer is about.
Radio Flyer knows how to push buttons. It has an obnoxiously cute dog that pulls wagons, passes wind in the car and sits on cliffs and rooftops with his young masters. It has a struggling mother who's oblivious to her husband's drunken tirades. It has a good cop (John Heard) who senses trouble the day the family movies to their home. It even has a lucky turtle the boys find in their shed.
Most importantly, it recaptures the magic of childhood. Just as Peter Pan gets kids clapping to save Tinkerbell, Radio Flyer has audiences believing that Mikey and Bobby can build a plane from a lawn mower engine, a Radio Flyer wagon and a cardboard box.
The long, slow, predictable build-up works. It's also so calculated, there's a tinge of guilt for liking it.
Nevertheless, Radio Flyer is a joy to watch; poignant, well-acted and frosted with the sugar-coating that time imparts on memories.
Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzello are fabulous. They're unaffected, naturalistic actors, not little hams like Macaulay Culkin.
Bracco, the female incarnation of Eric Roberts, over-emotes as usual. Baldwin is relegated to shadowy-figure status. The reasons for his abusive behavior are never explored since Radio Flyer is told from young Mikey's limited vantage point.
Although Radio Flyer confronts child abuse as straightforwardly as My Girl addresses death _ and for their frankness, both are to be applauded _ Radio Flyer's greatest success comes from its recapturing the lunatic antics of childhood.
There is frog hunting in sewers, trashing the kitchen when Mom and Dad are away and ordering secret potions from the backs of comic books.
Radio Flyer goes overboard with heart-tugging symbolism, like a teary-eyed buffalo alone at a road show, but it has a fanciful quality so rarely seen in pictures today that its excesses are easily forgiven.
+ + +
Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Lorraine Bracco, John Heard, Elijah Wood, Joseph Mazzello, Adam Baldwin
Screenplay: David Mickey Evans
Rating: PG-13, violence, profanity
Running time: 113 minutes