Coming across "Radio Flyer" (citywide) is like stumbling on a massive pile of debris in some desert locale. Are these the ruins of a once great and promising city, the traveler wonders, all that is left, perhaps, of a previously thriving civilization? Or was there never anything but junk here in the first place?
Certainly, the sheiks of Hollywood felt that David Mickey Evans' original script for "Radio Flyer" was promising enough to merit a bidding war that ended with Evans getting paid $1.2 million by Stonebridge Entertainment and newly cash-rich Columbia for his first produced screenplay. And once Evans, who also snagged the right to direct, proved not to everyone's liking, the studio was willing to eat a reported $10 million in pre-production costs in order to give his replacement, Richard Donner, the auteur's chance to start from scratch with the material.
Donner, one of the losers in that bidding war, had always been passionate about Evans' script, but, unfortunately, no one watching the finished film will be able to figure out what he or anyone else saw in it. As things now stand, even after considerable tinkering and delays, "Radio Flyer" is a well-meaning failure, a muddled fantasy about child abuse that ponderously attempts to combine the grace of legend with the earnestness of a public-service announcement.
Even figuring this much out about "Radio Flyer" takes some doing, for the film is very slow getting going and in fact begins with not one but two separate prologues. The first is set in the present with an unbilled Tom Hanks as Mike, tolerantly watching his two young sons engage in a bit of juvenile bickering. Something about their argument makes him decide this is the perfect time to relate the story of his own younger days, circa 1969, with his own younger brother, Bobby.
But before the Mike and Bobby flashback that is the heart of the film begins, another prologue, shot in black-and-white, comes on. This one tells the story of a feisty California kid named Fisher, who electrified his pals by taking his bike down the steepest of hills and attempting to turn it into a flying machine. "His legend," the adult Mike informs us portentously, "would change our lives forever."
This sense of pompous solemnity never leaves either the voice-over or Mike's retelling of his youth. For one of the problems with the PG-13 "Radio Flyer" is that it relentlessly sanctifies childhood as the most special time on Earth and turns its two protagonists into pint-sized saints who do as much silent suffering at the hands of either ineffectual or downright evil adults as any medieval martyr you can think of.
The kids' mom Mary (Lorraine Bracco) falls very definitely in the ineffectual, if not criminally negligent, category. After being abandoned by her husband, she takes Mike and Bobby and their dog Shane (yes, Shane) out to California, where she promptly falls in love with and marries a particularly odious type (Adam Baldwin) who insists that the boys call him "the King."
Not exactly a benevolent monarch, the King turns out to be a craven, beer-swilling lout whose only pleasure in life, aside from interminably playing Hank Williams' "Jambayala," is beating poor Bobby black and blue, something the kids never get around to telling their mother, who is so conveniently mired in double shifts down at the diner she never seems to notice on her own.
It hardly needs to be said that child abuse is a real and serious problem. And whatever else is wrong with "Radio Flyer," Elijah Wood (already a veteran of "Avalon" and "Paradise") and Joseph Mazzello ("Presumed Innocent") are beyond reproach as Mike and Bobby. However, this film is so powerless when it comes to either presenting the problem in a moving way or figuring out how to believably resolve it in story terms that it feels exploitative when it is at its most sincere.
For instance, calling the boys' stepfather "the King" and never giving us a full-face close-up of him, though doubtless intended to mirror their childhood sense of this man as an almost mythical abuser, in fact plays simultaneously heavy-handed and hollow and ends up irritating when it means to enlighten.
That goes double for the film's fantasy elements, which involve Bobby's spiffy Radio Flyer wagon and innumerable cloying references to "a special secret thing that all kids know." These sequences are so feebly set up and so ineptly handled that it is not until the film is quite over that you realize how important they were supposed to be.
Though he has worked with youthful casts before ("The Goonies") and clearly is at home with them, director Donner has made his reputation with brawnier comedic action films like "Superman" and both installments of "Lethal Weapon." His strong desire to direct "Radio Flyer" indicates that he believes he has a light, magical touch as well, the kind Steven Spielberg showed in "E.T.," but he clearly does not. Lacking that state of grace, "Radio Flyer" is destined to be buried without a trace in the sands of Hollywood, yet another monument to the futility of combining good intentions with leaden execution.
Lorraine Bracco: Mary
John Heard: Daugherty
Adam Baldwin: The King
Elijah Wood: Mike
Joseph Mazzello: Bobby
Ben Johnson: Geronimo Bill
A Stonebridge Entertainment production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Richard Donner. Producer Lauren Shuler-Donner. Executive producers Michael Douglas, Rick Bieber, David Mickey Evans. Screenplay David Mickey Evans. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Editor Stuart Baird. Costumes April Ferry. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design J. Michael Riva. Art director David Frederick Klassen. Set decorator Michael Taylor. Running time: 2 hours.