Friday, September 16, 2011

In Defense Of: Radio Flyer

This is the third and last piece this week celebrating the works of Richard Donner. Click here and here to view the other two posts.

History is all in the mind of the teller.
                                                    --older Mikey (Tom Hanks)

When I first saw 1992's Radio Flyer as a young teenager, i had a clear idea of what the film was about. A mother and her two young boys leave home in New Jersey to start a new life in California. Mom (Lorraine Bracco) meets a new man who calls himself The King, and marries him. The boys don't like The King, and he does bad things to Bobby (Joseph Mazzello). Bobby has nowhere else to turn, so with the help of his big brother Mikey (Elijah Wood), they create a flying machine out of a wagon, and Bobby flies away. He can finally be happy again. Bobby sends postcards to Mike from the countries he had visited. He was saved by his big brother.

Sure, I was a naive 12-year-old, but that's what I got out of it. I loved it. What kid doesn't dream of flying away?

Then I saw the film again as an adult many years later and I saw layers I had never seen before. The abuse was more extreme than I imagined. The themes of isolation were more prevelant. Throughout the film, there was a great sense of dread. There were more than a few subtle hints that Bobby didn't survive in the end.

I'm sure this has happened to everyone. You watch a movie during your childhood and then again later in life. Most often, it is like watching an entirely different movie altogether. What makes Radio Flyer so unique, however, is that my altered perspective did not change my opinion of the film in the slightest bit. My childlike interpretation of the movie still works, as does my mature, adult viewpoint. That's the secret. That's what makes Radio Flyer a special film. I love it now as much as I loved it then. There is just no wrong way to view this movie.

Radio Flyer was slaughtered by critics. It tanked in the box office. It's a blip in the careers of Wood, Mazzello, Bracco, John Heard, Tom Hanks, writer David Mickey Evans and director Richard Donner. It's a shame because it needs to be seen with an open perspective. A older kid can enjoy it without knowing too much about what really happened to Bobby. And an adult can appreciate the real beauty of the film: the magical bond between two brothers, strengthened during troubling times.

Roger Ebert, a professional critic whose opinion I greatly respect, is very close-minded about this one. He writes, "The movie is a real squirmarama of unasked and unanswered questions. Who is this movie made for?" He mirrored the thoughts of many others in that it is tonally confused. Is it a fantasy for kids? Or is it a drama about child abuse for adults? My answers: Yes and yes. Radio Flyer is a multifaceted film, a rare, thoughtful story that caters to two very different audiences.

There are a few interpretations of the film's final scenes and, frankly, any of them will work. If you are a young teen, maybe 11 or 12 (the film doesn't work for kids younger than that), Bobby did fly away. He escaped from the bad man in his life and started anew.

For older teens and adults, it's clear that the older Mike made up the ending. "History is all in the mind of the teller," he tells us. Bobby is no longer with us. Did he crash in the flyer, or was he beaten to death by The King? Well, let me ask you: does it matter? The truth is that Bobby tried to run away, he tried to escape, and he just couldn't. Bobby's death was inevitable.

This is dark, heavy stuff. It's all too common in this world. Children are abused and sometimes there's no one there to help them. The mother in this situation loved her two boys, but she either had no knowledge of what was happening or, more likely, she had no courage or strength to put a stop to it. His brother can only do so much, and it's clear that as he got older, he filled his mind with some fiction that made Bobby's life story easier to swallow. Mike wasn't ready to tell his kids the real truth. He wasn't ready to face the truth himself.

That's just my interpretation, and who's to say it's right or wrong? There's a theory floating around stating that Bobby is a figment of Mike's imagination. There is no Bobby. Mike was the one who got beaten up, built the machine to escape, and eventually became a pilot and learned to fly (which explains why the film opens and closes on an air field). It's sketchy, but I'll buy it. There are scenes and lines in the movie that can be interpreted as such.

Evans and Donner leave enough loose ends dangling to allow us to figure it out ourselves. It's a puzzle, but not necessarily a perplexing one. I'd say it's more like a comforting puzzle. Radio Flyer shows us just enough to give us the big picture.

And isn't that something special?


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your view point. I watched 'Radio Flyer' as a kid when it came out on VHS and loved it. I, too, was naive then in regards to the story's true meaning. It wasn't until I watched it again that I realized Tom Hank's character's meaning of "history is all in the mind of the teller". An absolutely great movie and think that the critics of the early 90's were too narrow minded to understand the deeper context of the film's story.

Syclone0044 said...

I agree this is a moving, touching, and disturbing movie. I'm glad I found your blog with intelligent comments on it as this film did not receive a lot of attention. It was pure happenstance that I happened to view it as a kid. I remember it clearly.

Now I'm watching it as an adult and it's a lot more powerful.

Anonymous said...

I loved Radio Flyer. It was a great movie. You're damned right Bobby got away. I loved the idea of two kids building an airplane out of a radio flyer wagon!!! I loved it!!! Kudos to the dog who put that mean child abuser in his place. Yes indeed, Radio Flyer was a cool movie. Tell the critics to go jump in the lake!!!

Anonymous said...

I really loved this movie and if you're a adult now like myself who grew up with a monster in the house it is the most satisfying ending anyone could think of.
Kudos again to a wonderful writer and director.

Anonymous said...

I read an interview with the man who wrote the original script. Donner changed a lot of important things that would've answered all questions. Bobby did live, and in fact, even meet at the end in the Smithsonian Museum. Bobby wears an airman uniform.. donner changed it. While I love this movie..I would've liked to have seen it the way it was intended.

Anonymous said...

Did you see these a new book about it???? I guess it's only available on create space today but on. Amazon and kindle in a couple days!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting about this movie. I just saw it for the first time a week ago and have been thinking about it constantly ever since. No matter what the director and screenwriter had in mind in terms of Bobby actually flying away or not, they definitely left a lot of ambiguity in the ending and I totally agree that it will probably be seen differently by viewers of different ages. I was drawn into the story and was not at all sure how it would end. I thought it was a bit ridiculous at first to think that he actually did fly away, but then it was chilling when you hear all the clues that something else could have happened. "History is in the mind of the teller' "that's how I remember Bobby anyway" with that long, faraway sad look, how the mom couldn't see him actually flying because she had outgrown belief in such things.
I also 100% agree with the original poster that the real magic in the film is the relationship between the two brothers. The filmmakers did a great job at capturing childhood from the children's point of view.
Anyway, I'm not exactly sure how I feel about the ending, but I think this was a great film, and I'm not sure why it was lambasted so badly at the time of release.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful movie. I saw the film when it was first released, and I re-watch whenever I find it on TV.

Through my adult eyes, Bobby never existed. Mike was horribly abused by his stepfather, and he transferred his pain to an imaginary brother and best friend. Mike reinvented himself as Bobby's protector, not as a helpless victim.

Bobby "flew away" when The King was arrested and incarcerated. The stepfather finally left, and the abuse stopped. Bobby then became symbolic of Mike's freedom and safety.

Sadly, The King beat Shane to death. In Mike's storytelling, the dead dog magically came back to life and left with Bobby.

It's nice that Samson survived, to be loved by another generation of young boys.

Anonymous said...

In a recent article, David Mickey Evans explains how the ending was changed... here is a quote on how he intended it to end: " The most glaring change was the end of the film, the original script ended with a reunion of sorts between Mike and Bobby, grown up, in the Smithsonian National Aerospace Museum where the Radio Flyer is on display next the The Wright Flyer -- with the exception that is has no visable means of support (no wires, nothing... just hovering in mid air proudly). I wrote it because I intended it to mean that the Radio Flyer had actually worked -- whatever the machinations of how Bobby survived notwithstanding. Mr. Donner's opinion was that the ending should be a "Rorschach Test" for the audience. I believe that is entirely wrong."

Apparently Bobby lives and the radio flyer worked though he never thought of logistics on how a child that young survived on his own. I saw the movie as a child and loved it until my mean stepfather told me "HE DIDN'T LIVE HE DIED." I always thought he had died...


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