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Film / Radio Flyer

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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.

Behind-the-scenes, the film is better known for its Troubled Production that saw the would-be directorial debut of screenwriter David Mickey Evans, whose original script was purchased in a record-breaking bidding war, quashed mid-way through principal photography by the studio. Several of the lead actors were recast and Evans was replaced in the director's chair by Richard Donner, who made him rewrite large chunks of the script, resulting in a film many critics said was filled with clashing tones.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Stepdad: The King. He even has a pet name for his favorite appliance to beat Bobby with!
  • Adults Are Useless: Played straight with the mother; she seems oblivious about The King's abuse of her children, but though she does request a divorce later on due to the numerous times Jack beat Bobby and heavily drunk (after she found out), after the arrest she tries to reconcile with him. It is sad she does after he what he has done, but she probably does it in the hope he would stop his bad behavior, unfortunately he does not. The sheriff knows something is amiss and is caring enough to intervene on behalf of the brothers few times, but he does not succeed in doing so.
  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: The King tearfully grovels to Mary to forgive him and take him back after she throws him out for severely beating up Bobby. It turns out to be a ruse, however, and she falls for it hook, line, and sinker.
  • An Aesop: About keeping promises, no matter what. Although YMMV as to how family-friendly this is, given the context.
    • Be more careful in choosing your spouse. A lesson Mary learns the hard way.
  • The Alcoholic: The King.
  • Arc Symbol: Airplanes and various other flying craft.
  • Asshole Victim: The King more than deserved getting attacked by Shane and arrested. Twice each.
  • Badass Cape: One of the seven great abilities and fascinations is based upon this trope.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: The King viciously beats and abuses Shane while Mary and the boys are away. Could be a case of Pragmatic Villainy since he knows Shane will maul his ass if he attempts to hurt Bobby in the dog's presence.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Shane, twice. Ordinarily watching a big, powerful dog like him mauling somebody would be completely horrifying. Not so much when it's The King. Once after he beats Bobby to near death and once more when he ambushes the boys on the hill.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The King initially seems like a decent, friendly guy and solid stepfather material for Mike & Bobby. Until the drinking starts...
    • Deliberately used by him when begging Mary to take him back, drunkenly sobbing out crocodile tears and fake promises to change. Sadly, she caves in.
  • 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.
  • Dramatically 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. Then again it's not as if he cared that much about their well-being to begin with. Either way, he heads them off with the sole intention of punishing both of them for disobeying him.
  • The Dreaded: How Mike and Bobby come to view The King once his true colors show.
  • Dream Sequence: The dream of the buffalo.
  • Easily Forgiven: Mary does this to The King, probably only in the hopes that things will change. Unfortunately, they do not. Sadly, both 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 from the boys' point of view along with everything else in the film.
  • For the Evulz: The King is not given a Freudian Excuse for his actions.
  • Finger Gun: One of the seven great abilities and fascinations is that this actually fires bullets.
  • Flight: The last of the seven great abilities and fascinations, and the main focus of this film.
  • Framing Device: Adult Mike is telling his kids the story of his childhood.
  • Free-Range Children: Mike and Bobby. After the abuse starts, Mike invokes this trope as a deliberate way to keep Bobby out of the house and out of The King's crosshairs as much as possible.
  • 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.
  • Gang of Bullies: Victor's Gang.
  • 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.
  • Hate Sink: The King is a world class asshole.
  • Heroic Dog: Shane, 100%.
  • I Call It "Vera": Old Trusty, the cord The King uses to beat Bobby. Funnily enough, The King is played by the same actor whose character would provide the trope name later on.
  • 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.
  • Just Plane Wrong: No way could the souped-up Radio Flyer fly in real life. For starters, the engine the kids choose to strap to the Flyer lacks the power for the job. Even more the case for the little helicopter propellers they add to the wings to boost takeoff. The third part is that the design seems to lack any significant fuel tank, so it wouldn't fly far.
  • Kick the Dog: Two examples 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.
  • 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.
  • Parasol Parachute: One of the seven great abilities and fascinations is based upon this trope.
  • Pinky Swear: What makes the whole mess happen, from an Aesop point of view. The plan of transforming a wagon into a functional airplane is the one option that fulfills the promise between the brothers to protect each other that doesn't breaks the promise to make their mother sad... somehow.
  • Plot Parallel: The beatings of Mikey and Bobby, by Victor's gang and The King, respectively.
  • Police Are Useless: Subverted. The sheriff does attempt to intervene on the boys' behalf and succeeds in throwing The King in jail after his brutal beating of Bobby, but the courts let him out to attend his mother's funeral without any monitoring or orders to stay away from Mary and the boys.
  • Precision F-Strike: The movie's lone F-bomb happens under funny circumstances; during the long drive to their new home, Mary and the boys sing the Name Song ("Bobby, Bobby, Bo-Bobby, Banana-fana-fo-fobby...") and eventually come to the name "Chuck". Right when the song reaches "Banana-fana-fo-fu—," Mary and Mike stop in time, Bobby doesn't, although he stops as soon as he realizes he dropped the bomb. Apologizing profusely, he scrambles into the back seat, saying he'll get the soap and wash out his mouth himself. Notably, Mary struggles to keep from busting out laughing.
  • 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.
  • Security Blanket: One of the above seven great abilities and fascinations.
  • Shout-Out: The theatre is showing "X-15" in the marquee. The film was Richard Donner's first film.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: The King.
  • The '60s: The story takes place in 1969 California.
  • Smug Snake: The King, after the boys discover what he did to Shane.
  • Spirit Advisor: The buffalo plays this role, sort of, to Mikey.
  • Talking Animal: This is one of the seven great abilities and fascinations. Additionally, in a dream, Mikey's Spirit Advisor buffalo talks to him.
  • Title Drop: Of course. There are several close-ups on the wagon's brand throughout the film.
  • Tragic Mistake: Mary accepting The King back into the family with the hopes that he's changed for the better, and that the abuse would finally stop. It does not, and the abuse escalates to the point where Bobby runs away from home and never returns.
  • Troperrific: The seven great abilities and fascinations, many of which are based on common tropes.
  • The Unfavorite: Bobby is the target of The King's abuse. Mikey has some Survivor Guilt over this, particularly when him ditching Bobby to hang out with Victor and his crew results in Bobby suffering at the hands of The King.
  • Unnamed Parent: Bobby and Mikey call their stepfather The King, "because that's what he liked to be called." A Blink And Youll Miss It moment shows his real name is Jack McKenzie.
  • 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?"
  • Urban Legend: An In-Universe one about how the Fisher kid tried to use the hill next to the airfield as a ramp for a flying stunt that went horribly wrong is talked about at the beginning of the film, and later on Mikey and Bobby remember it and decide to try to fly themselves... of course, after making sure that they have something better than a cape and a bike to try it with.
  • When It All Began: The Fisher story.
  • Wicked Stepfather: The King. He's wicked enough that running away from him would be a pretty good idea in the sense of "he's going to kill my brother, I have to do something"... if not, you know, the fact that calling the police is a million times better.