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Radio Flyer's childhood theme doesn't quite fly

Radio Flyer
Directed by Richard Donner.
Written by David Mickey Evans.
Starring Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzello.
At Loews Copley Place.

By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

Childhood themes haven't been faring too well at the movies these days. The latest offering from Steven Spielberg, widely praised as the guru of youth cinema, was the fairly disappointing Hook. Beauty and the Beast, which has earned $110 million and the first best picture Oscar nomination awarded to an animated film, would be slighted by the term "a kid's movie." Now Richard Donner, most famous for directing both Lethal Weapon movies, has created Radio Flyer, a story of two brothers who transform their little red wagon into an imaginative means of flight from their abusive stepfather. But despite a very good premise and some strong performances, Radio Flyer never really gets off of the ground.

Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzello play Mike and Bobby Wright (a not-too-funny pun, given the film's fascination with flight), two young brothers who travel from New Jersey to California with their single mother (Lorraine Brocco) after their father deserts them. Soon after the splintered family arrives at their new home, Ms. Wright meets "The King," a totally unredeeming character who has a tendency to get upset at Bobby for no reason at all. This is a man who will become not just an evil stepfather, but an evil stepfather who daily drinks enough cheap beer to raise his blood alcohol level well beyond lethal levels, listens to cheesy country music well into the night, names himself after Elvis, drives an ugly pickup truck with tools constantly falling out of the back, and enjoys wielding electrical wire. Despite all of these warning signs, Ms. Wright marries "The King," and Bobby and Mike discover that a monster much more frightening than anything they see on television or in their comic books has settled in their own home.

The two brothers are able to find a few defenses against their stepfather, including their pet dog, who tries to protect the boys at all costs. Mike and Bobby also begin to spend their days exploring the woods around their home and making money through such ventures as finding and selling lost golf balls and depositing glass bottles. "The King" soon becomes too dangerous, though, and the boys decide to use their secret money to create "The Big Idea" -- the only real way to get away from "The King's" anger.

The world of Radio Flyer is a world of crying buffalo, frightening werewolves, secret potions, and boys who can fly, all seen through the eyes of children. Wood, who was very impressive in 1990's Avalon, and Mazzello both do an excellent job in realistically portraying both the joys and pains associated with the stage of life when such visions are strongest. But the boys' acting is far superior to Evans' script, which frames the story as an anecdotal flashback of an older Mike (Tom Hanks) talking to his own children years later. There are far too many scenes of Wood looking up into the sky as Hanks' voice says something like "That was the first time that I ..." or "From that moment on, I realized that ..." It doesn't take long for the voiceover narration to grow tired, driving every significant point into the ground. And Donner, who is much better at intense action sequences than at touching family scenes, fumbles too often with his material. A few scenes possess an ingenuous charm, but more often the story creates unintentional laughter when it tries for heartfelt emotion. Add to these shortcomings one of the weaker endings that I've seen lately, and Radio Flyer doesn't add up to much.