Film: Radio Flyer

Radio Flyer is a 1992 drama-fantasy film directed by Richard Donner.

An adult named Mike (Tom Hanks) is observing his two sons fighting; with one insisting that a promise doesn't mean anything. To make them understand that a promise does mean something, he tells them the story of his youth. Young Mike (Elijah Wood), his little brother Bobby (Joseph Mazzello), their mother Mary (Lorraine Bracco) and their German Shepherd Shane move to a new town after their father/husband leaves them. There, Mary marries a new man (Adam Baldwin), who likes the others to call him "The King". Unbeknowst to Mary, The King is an alcoholic who often gets drunk and beats Bobby. The two boys, seeing that their mother has found happiness at last with The King, are reluctant to tell either her or the police about the abuse. They instead try to avoid The King by exploring and having adventures in amidst the local environs. In the process, the two concoct a plan for Bobby to escape The King once and for all. Inspired by the urban legend of a boy named Fisher who attempted to fly away on his bicycle, the two convert their epononymous Radio Flyer toy wagon into an airplane. With it, Bobby flies away. Though Mike never sees him again, he continues to receive postcards from him from places all over the world.

Very much may your mileage vary in regards to this film. On one hand, you may find it a heartwarming tearjerker. On the other hand, however, you may find it (and indeed, at the time of its release, many such as Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin found it) a bit immoral for suggesting that all a child needs to do to escape abuse is construct a rickety little toy airplane out of a red wagon and stuff from a junkyard — which obviously is impossible in real life. Because of the nebulous conclusion, a few people have concocted theories regarding that Bobby doesn't actually fly away at the end. One such theory is that Mike was the actual recipent of the abuse and that Bobby was just a psychological projection, ala Fight Club, whom he used to disassociate himself from it, and that he "flew away" once The King was arrested because Mike no longer had any need of him. Another theory is that Bobby actually perished, and that Mike repressed this memory and constructed a false but bearable one. However, director Richard Donner has denied all these theories.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parent
  • Adults Are Useless: Played straight with the mother; she seems oblivious about The King's abuse of her children, and once she realizes what has happened, she reconciles with The King anyway. However, the sheriff knows something is amiss, and in two of his three appearances intervenes on the brothers' behalf. Also, the kids are actively trying to conceal the abuse.
  • The Alcoholic: The King.
  • An Aesop: About keeping promises, no matter what. Although YMMV as to how family-friendly this is, given the context.
  • Arc Symbol: Airplanes and various other flying craft.
  • Comically Missing the Point: When The King reads Mikey's note, he is angry as he told them to stay off the hill, completely missing the ominous message which could easily lead an outsider to think Bobby intended to kill himself.
  • Disappeared Dad: The boys' real father.
  • Distant Prologue: The Fisher story.
  • Disturbed Doves: A flock of these takes off when The King gives Bobby the No-Holds-Barred Beatdown that leads to his arrest.
  • Dream Sequence: The dream of the buffalo.
  • Easily Forgiven: Mary does this to The King. Sadly, can be Truth in Television.
  • The Faceless: The King. Believed to be because Adam Baldwin didn't want his face associated with child abuse, but could also be the director's way of portraying The King as an almost mythic figure.
  • Framing Device: Adult Mike is telling his kids the story of his childhood.
  • Friend or Idol Decision: Subverted. At one point, Mikey has a choice: to stay with Bobby or to play football with Victor and his gang. Given that he wants to fit in, he goes with the gang, leaving his brother to his own devices. The result is that the football game is actually an ambush, which Mikey ends up overcoming, only to come home and find that his brother was put in the hospital by The King. He realizes he should have stayed with Bobby.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Twice: during onstage abuse of Bobby, the camera cuts away — to Mikey the first time, and to a flock of Disturbed Doves the second.
  • Groin Attack: Mikey gives one to Victor, winning the fight.
  • Growing Up Sucks: At age 13, one loses the "seven great abilities".
  • Harmful to Minors: Bobby's abuse by The King...and what he does to escape it.
  • I Call It "Vera": Old Trusty, the cord The King uses to beat Bobby.
  • I Gave My Word: An important theme in the story — mainly, the reason Mikey doesn't tell anyone about the abuse.
  • It Was a Gift: The eponymous wagon.
  • Kick the Dog: / The Dog Bites Back: Two examples of the former side by side. One is literal as The King abuses Shane when Bobby and Mike aren't around. The other is when he starts hurting Mike while he tries to start the plane. Shane bit back during the second kicking.
  • Jossed: Word of God denies the presence of Alternative Character Interpretation or an Unreliable Narrator.
  • Just Plane Wrong: No way could the souped-up Radio Flyer fly in real life. (In his review, Roger Ebert saw the whole business as a case of Morton's Fork — it would be horrible to see it fail and kill the kid, but worse for it to succeed because it would suggest to real kids that they could use fantastic devices to escape their problems.)
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Quoted nearly word for word by Fisher's friends during the prologue.
  • Never Say "Die": The "Is he...?" variant is used with Fisher.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: The King gives one of these to Bobby as Victor's gang is giving one of these to Mikey.
  • Kick the Dog: The King almost kills Shane at one point.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: Or at least, very gullible. Mary is quick to swallow The King's very transparent lies and empty promises.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The King. You have to pay careful attention to realize his name is Jack MacKenzie.
  • Pinky Swear
  • Plot Parallel: The beatings of Mikey and Bobby, by Victor's gang and The King, respectively.
  • Product Placement: Naturally; Radio Flyer is a brand name of a real life little red wagon.
  • Rube Goldberg Device: Regardless of what some reviewers said, this trope is actually inverted. Despite the work the boys put into fixing up the Radio Flyer, it is under-engineered, as far as actual flight is concerned.
  • Rule of Cool: The only way the plot to escape The King is able to work.
  • Rule of Seven: The seven great abilities and fascinations of childhood.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: The King.
  • Smug Snake: The King, after the boys discover what he did to Shane.
  • Spirit Advisor: The buffalo plays this role, sort of, to Mikey.
  • Tearjerker: So, so many. The beatings, Shane's death until it's revealed he's alive, and Bobby's departure.
  • Title Drop: Of course.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The adult Mike may well be this. Indeed, at the end he says to his own sons: "Now do you understand what I mean about history being in the mind of the teller?"
  • Wag the Director: Possibly. One explanation for The King being The Faceless is that Baldwin refused to have his face associated with child abuse.
  • When It All Began: The Fisher story.
  • Wicked Stepfather