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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. With it, Bobby flies away. Though Mike never sees him again, he continues to receive postcards from him from places all over the world.


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 Dad: 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.
  • 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.
  • Badass Cape: One of the seven great abilities and fascinations is based upon this trope.
  • 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.
    • Probably only in the hopes that things will change though, unfortunately they do not.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. (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.)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Unnamed Parent: Bobby and Mikey call their stepfather The King, "because that's what he liked to be called."
  • 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.