American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Radio Flyer" pushes so many buttons that I wanted to start pushing back. One of the things I resisted was the movie's almost doglike desire to please. It seems to be asking: How can anyone dislike a movie that is against child abuse, and believes little red wagons can fly? I found it fairly easy. The movie pushes so many fundamental questions under the rug of its convenient screenplay that the happy ending seems like cheating, if not like fraud.
"Radio Flyer" begins with the compulsion, common to so much children's literature and film, to place its little heroes in a cruel and heartless world. Like all those cartoon characters who lose their parents, are kidnapped, or have their homes burned down or their families lost at sea, this one begins on a sad note, with a divorce. The central characters, Mike and Bobby, are then taken by their mother to California, where she marries a sadistic, drunken bully who wants to be called The King. When Mom isn't around, The King likes to beat little Bobby, who gets black and blue welts as a result.
The mother (Lorraine Bracco) is a strange case, an engaging, intelligent, hardworking woman who somehow fails to notice that she is married to a monster. She also misses the welts on Bobby's back, and of course her kids, feeling untrusted and abandoned, do not tell her about the beatings. Instead, they begin to plan an escape for little Bobby, by outfitting his Radio Flyer wagon with wings and an engine, so it will fly, and he can leave town and never come back.
They have some reason to think this plan will work. A kid named Fisher once coasted his wagon down a hill and up the slope of a barn, and he flew through the sky so high he was almost able to hitch a ride on the tail of a plane that was taking off from the valley. Of course, Fisher also suffered a terrible fall, and when we finally meet him, late in the picture, he is crippled, but there you have it: Heroes have to take chances.
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