The film starred Hal Scardino as Omri, Litefoot as Little Bear, Lindsay Crouse, Richard Jenkins, Rishi Bhat as Omri's friend Patrick, Steve Coogan as Tommy Atkins, and David Keith as Boone the Cowboy. It was distributed by Columbia Pictures (Non-US theatre release, TV broadcast rights and US video release) and Paramount Pictures (US theatre and Non-US video release).
On his ninth birthday, Omri receives an old cupboard from his brother Gillon (Vincent Kartheiser) and a little Native American "Indian" figure made of plastic from his best friend Patrick (Rishi Bhat). That night, Omri goes through his mom's box of old keys and finds that a gold-colored key with a red ribbon tied to it (given to his mother by her grandmother) actually fits the keyhole of his cupboard. He then looks for an object to lock in the cupboard and settles for the Indian figurine.
The next morning, he hears a small tapping noise coming from the cupboard. Omri opens the cupboard and finds a small living person hiding in the corner. It is actually the Indian figure who has magically come to life in human form. Frightened by his large acquaintance, the Indian pulls out a dagger and points it at Omri. Shortly afterward, Omri's father comes in the room to help Omri get ready for school, forcing Omri to lock the cupboard and keep the Indian a secret.
When Omri arrives home from school, he is upset to discover that the Indian has returned to its original toy form. When he goes to bed, Omri once more hears the tapping noise he heard that morning. He opens the cupboard to find the Indian alive once more. The Indian is again initially frightened of Omri but warms up to him, thinking Omri is a great spirit in a child's form, as the two begin talking, slowly forming a friendship. The Indian reveals himself as an English-speaking, 18th-century Iroquois Indian named Little Bear (Litefoot) who was fighting in the French and Indian War on the side of the British. During Little Bear's stay with Omri, Omri learns a lot about the Iroquois. Omri also learns that Little Bear has a deceased wife. Then Omri takes Little Bear outside, but Little Bear gets hurt by a pigeon, forcing Omri to bring to life his brother's First World War British Army medic named Tommy Atkins (Steve Coogan) to treat Little Bear's wound.
After giving Little Bear tools, sticks and some paper, Little Bear crafts a longhouse and eagerly talks of hunting and sharing stories with Omri over a fire, as he does with his own people. Omri decides to surprise Little Bear with another Indian figure (resembling a Chieftain), saying Little Bear can have the Chieftain's longbow. Little Bear watches in excitement as Omri brings the figure to life. However, before Omri can send the Chieftain back, he suffers a heart attack out of fear, which frightens Omri since he has never seen someone die. Little Bear is confused as to why a spirit would be frightened by a dead man, coming to the realization that Omri really is a child. Little Bear tells Omri to send the man back, but Omri is reluctant, worried that no one will find his body if he was alone when Omri summoned him. Little Bear yells at Omri, saying that he, Little Bear, had been guiding his nephew through the woods to teach him how to be a man when Omri had taken him away and that Omri shouldn't tamper with magic he doesn't even understand, upsetting Omri. Omri then locks the dead Chieftain in the cupboard, making him plastic once more, before leaving the angry Little Bear to answer his dad calling him downstairs.
Omri's dad is upset when, after asking Omri where his saw blades went, Omri tells him that he buried them and can't remember where (Omri lied to protect Little Bear's existence). Omri's dad forgives him, saying he can just buy another set, when Omri, out of guilt, volunteers to go buy the new set of blades for him, by himself. While Omri goes to the store, Little Bear is preparing the Chieftain's body, presumably still in its plastic form, for burial. As Omri leaves the hardware store, another slightly older kid knocks him into a wall and roughs him up, stealing the change Omri had left. Visibly shaken from the incident, Omri suddenly runs into Patrick, who has a plastic cowboy on a horse to go with the Indian. Patrick's mother is there as well, and they take him home (we assume he told them about being mugged off-screen since the next scene shows them entering Omri's house as Patrick's mother goes to inform his father what happened).
Eventually, Omri reveals his secret to Patrick. However, after finding Little Bear, who had been hiding from Omri's older brothers, Little Bear begs Omri to send him home. Ignoring Omri's protests, Patrick brings to life a cowboy from 1879 called "Boohoo" Boone (David Keith). Boone and Little Bear are initially unfriendly toward one another but are forced to behave themselves when Omri reluctantly agrees with Patrick to bring them to school. Their cover is nearly blown when Patrick almost shows Boone and Little Bear (now friends) to some classmates, and he and Omri began arguing in the hallway.
Back home, Omri shows a female Indian figure to Little Bear, which he intends to bring to life to give Little Bear a new wife. Just as he is about to lock the figure in the cupboard, he and Patrick (who is spending the night) are puzzled to find the cupboard is missing. Omri's brother confesses he hid the cupboard in the downstairs crawlspace as means of getting back at Omri for hiding the ball his brother keeps his pet rat in. When Omri retrieves the cupboard, he discovers that the key is gone.
That night, Omri and Patrick, along with Little Bear and Boone, watch a program on TV that shows a relentless slaughter of Indians by cowboys. Boone is enthusiastic at the sight of his "boys" killing the helpless Indians while Little Bear watches in horror at the sight of his "people" being massacred. Out of confusion upon hearing Boone fire his revolver into the air with cheers and applause, Little Bear fires an arrow into Boone's chest. Making matters worse, Omri's mother warns that Omri's brother's pet rat has escaped and is hidden somewhere under the wooden floors.
Later that night, Omri and Patrick find the key jammed between two floor boards and accidentally push it down out of sight while trying to retrieve it. Little Bear goes under the floor and manages to return the key to Omri just before he is nearly killed by the pet rat. With the key back, Omri brings back to life Tommy Atkins to treat Boone's wounds. While the still unconscious cowboy is being examined, Omri realizes it is time to return Little Bear and Boone to their respective time periods where they belong. Shortly after Omri locks Tommy Atkins back in the cupboard, Boone awakes and forgives Little Bear. Later that night, as Patrick sleeps, Omri goes to bring the female Indian to life, but Little Bear, seeing what Omri is doing, tells him to stop. Omri says he doesn't want Little Bear to be alone when he goes back, but Little Bear says that the Indian woman probably has people of her own, maybe even her own family, and forcing her to be with Little Bear would sadden her and in turn, sadden him. Omri agrees not to bring her to life. (This is a major difference between the film and the book, as Omri does bring the female Indian to life in the novel.)
The next morning, Omri and Patrick say their goodbyes to their little friends before locking them back in the cupboard. Just before saying goodbye, Omri has a vision of a life-sized Little Bear telling him that when he returns to his real time, he will take Omri on as his nephew. The film ends with Omri at school reading a journal entry where he assures everyone that although he will never know where or how Little Bear may be, he does not care about him anymore.Hal Scardino as Omri
Litefoot as Little Bear
David Keith as Boone
Lindsay Crouse as Jane
Richard Jenkins as Victor
Rishi Bhat as Patrick
Lucas Tejwani and Leon Tejwani as Baby Martin
Steve Coogan as Tommy Atkins
Sakina Jaffrey as Lucy
Vincent Kartheiser as Gillon
Nestor Serrano as Teacher
Ryan Olson as Adiel
Michael Papajohn as Cardassian
Frank Welker as Special Vocal Effects
Special effects created the illusion of three-inch tall characters such as Little Bear, Boone, and Tommy the Medic. One scene had Boone being thrown from his horse and Boone falls to the floor but is captured in Omri's hands. Another has a teacher asking Patrick to show what he and Omri were quarreling about; Boone and Little Bear pose as inanimate toys on Patrick's hand so as not to give themselves away.
A mock up of a giant sneaker was used during a fight scene involving Little Bear and Boone. One early scene shows Little Bear cautiously walking onto Omri's hand and stand in (Christopher James), and the boy marvels at how "real" the Indian looks. The Chief was played by 75-year-old Ojibwe actor George Randall.
The pet rat that is owned by Omri's brother was created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop and operated by Julianne Buescher.
According to Frank Oz, his frequently collaborative composer Miles Goodman completed and recorded a full score for the film. However, it was rejected because the writer and producers of the film disapproved of it and instead replaced it with Randy Edelman's score.
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 70% based on reviews from 20 critics.
Additionally, both Rishi Bhat and Hal Scardino received nominations in 1996 at the 17th Youth in Film Awards.
The movie debuted at number six at the North American box office. The film made only $35 million against a production budget of $45 million, making it a box office bomb; however, the film was in competition with high-profile successes like Apollo 13, Nine Months, Pocahontas, and Batman Forever. As a result, plans to adapt the next three books in the series into films were dropped.