It Doesn't Stay Aloft -- Some Ill-Advised Touches Ground `Radio Flyer'

XX "Radio Flyer," with Lorraine Bracco, John Heard, Elijah Wood, Joseph Mazzello, Adam Baldwin, Tom Hanks. Directed by Richard Donner, from a script by David Mickey Evans. Alderwood, Factoria, Kirkland Parkplace, Newmark, Oak Tree, Parkway Plaza, Seatac Mall. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised, due to language, scenes of child abuse. --------------------------------------------------------------- What if the matriarchal suburban family in "E.T." had been invaded by a mean-spirited stepfather who got smashed on six-packs, kicked the dog and abused the kids?

That nearly sums up the premise of "Radio Flyer," a very odd, expensive, ambitious failure that tries hard to achieve the Spielberg touch but succeeds only in reminding you of how few filmmakers can successfully lay claim to his territory. It also makes you wonder if even Spielberg could pull off such an ill-advised mixture of genres.

Maybe stories about child abuse shouldn't be blended with tall tales about kids who create a private world in which they talk with animals, play with Ouija boards and create a makeshift flying machine that provides their only escape from misery. It would take a genius at magic realism to make this material fly.

The screenwriter, David Mickey Evans, was also the original director of "Radio Flyer," but he was quickly canned and replaced by Richard Donner, an erratic filmmaker whose best movie remains the first "Superman." In the 1980s, Donner directed the "Lethal Weapon" movies and one of Spielberg's least endearing productions, "The Goonies," in which most of the children came off as braying, insufferable brats.

To his credit, Donner handles the kids with more restraint this time, and Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzello demonstrate an engaging sweetness and sensitivity. Unfortunately, they are rarely believable as young brothers so devoted to each other that they seem completely innnocent of sibling rivalry, let alone sibling squabbling.

It's not the actors' fault that they can't make sense of two late-1960s suburban kids who snuggle together and declare "I love you" at regular intervals. It's nice to see two siblings care about each other so much in wide-screen close-ups, and Evans does lay the groundwork for a close relationship by providing them with few friends, a mostly absent mother (Lorraine Bracco) and a rotten stepdad (Adam Baldwin). But these children are so idealized they have no flesh-and-blood dimensions.

You can't connect with them the way you did with the "E.T." kids, who called each other names, teased relentlessly and created scenes to get their single mother's attention. They're not well-observed characters but a careless, romanticizing adult's vision of childhood. The adult characters are sticks, and Bracco, Baldwin and John Heard (as a kindly sheriff) are wasted playing them.

Reportedly Donner had Evans rewrite and soften the child abuse episodes and play up the fantasy angle, but the scenes in which Baldwin picks on and slaps the younger boy are still hard to watch. Indeed, they're so upsetting that they throw the rest of the picture off balance, particularly when Heard wants to help the boys fight back. Why don't they take him up on his offer?

The kids insist on creating their secret flying machine, which takes on mythical resonance when the older boy's thoughts are spoken by his reminiscing adult self (Tom Hanks in an uncredited cameo role). This gizmo finally overwhelms the story, making hash of much of what has gone before; the fanciful finale is trivializing and ridiculous. It's borderline-offensive to follow it up with a call to arms against child abuse during the closing credits, complete with a phone number to ring up.

Stylishly photographed by Laszlo Kovacs and classily scored by Hans Zimmer, "Radio Flyer" is an attractive, professional piece of work. But Donner's insistent visual thefts from "E.T" - flying bicycles, shadowy adults identified by waist-level shots and key chains, a turtle that looks like an alien - ultimately suggest that he thought he was making some other kind of movie.