If ever a movie was at war with itself and, finally, its audience, that movie is "Radio Flyer."Parents, up front, should be warned that the film is a fairly explicit evocation of the horrors of child abuse. Those who tow their broods to the theaters in search of Spielbergesque manipulations may find themselves unprepared for the violent intensity of much of the plot.
But that's not to say there are no Spielbergesque manipulations; there are. That's the problem.
So what you get in "Radio Flyer" is an unholy brew of whimsy and blasphemy. It flits from the unwatchable to the unbelievable, with nary a pause between them and the effect, to say the least, is unsettling.
Richard Donner, the high-commercial stylist from "Superman" and "Lethal Weapon" fame, gives the materials a super-slick, glossy look that all but overwhelms its slender materials. It's an anti-child abuse public service announcement filmed as a tampon commercial.
Donner repeats Spielberg's trope from "E.T." of not showing adult faces, particularly the father's, until about halfway through the film. But instead of evoking the subtle focus of childhood, as Spielberg did, this only serves to underscore the film's gimmickiness and its inability to elicit true emotion, as opposed to gasps at the various atrocities.
The story, by David Mickey Evans, unspools in flashback, as narrated in a framing story by the now grown-up participant of the events, Tom Hanks. Hanks was the eldest of two brothers (Elijah Wood plays him as a boy and Joseph Mazzello is his younger sibling) in the working-class neighborhood of a northern California town. The younger, weaker boy is routinely beaten by their stepfather. So terrified are they of breaking their fragile mother's porcelain grasp on happiness, they decide to deal with the situation themselves, which they do badly.
They hide from ugly reality in banal fantasy, which the movie insists upon sanctifying with gossamer photography and Hanks' over solemn, ersatz-lyrical voice-over. This escape takes the form of the construction of an elaborate vehicle, part little red wagon (the Radio Flyer of the title), and part Bell UH-1B Huey helicopter. It is by this device that the younger boy intends to "escape" the predations of the brutal stepfather.
The movie seems to leave its realistic underpinnings behind when it depicts this escape as authentic. Much like E.T. struggling to make it back to the mothership, the two brothers struggle against the father to make it to take off. The sequence is constructed as dynamically as a gunfight in "Lethal Weapon," but it leaves one feeling cold. Surely most adults won't see it as "escape" but as "danger." What goes up must come down.
And the conclusion, therefore, leaves the terrifying possibility that what we have witnessed is the elaborate, symbolic representation of a suicide, which is itself another form of escape. The movie never faces this implication squarely, but it was enough to leave a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach where the "uplift" was supposed to be, when I left the theater.
Starring Tom Hanks. Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzello
Directed by Richard Donner.
Released by Columbia.
* 1/2 stars.