Small Soldiers

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

July 21, 1998

Joe Dante directs special effects-driven movies that have a weird subversive edge. The Howling, Gremlins and his latest, Small Soldiers all seem like standard genre fare, but Dante twists the conventions of comedy and horror and makes his own unique visions. Small Soldiers covers much the same ground as Gremlins, but it's just as entertaining as its predecessor.

Jay Mohr and David Cross play toymakers whose company has just been purchased by a defense contractor. In order to please their new boss (Denis Leary), the two design two sets of fighting toys like no other. The Gorgonites and the Commando Elite are more than typical action figures. Powered by a chip intended for long-range missiles, these toys are intelligent and practically alive. They can think and learn. When they talk they speak in original sentences, and they can interact with children who play with them.

Unfortunately, the toys have been too well endowed. The Commando Elite, led by the gung-ho Chip Hazard (who has Tommy Lee Jones' voice), break out of their boxes and attack the normally peaceful Gorgonites. The Commando Elite are ruthless and aren't above hurting any people who stop them from destroying their fellow toys. Worse, they run on unlimited batteries and ceaseless determination.

If the human cast (which includes Kirsten Dunst, Kevin Dunn and the late Phil Hartman) takes a backseat to the computer-generated toys, Small Soldiers is still unusual because Dante breaks several rules as he goes. Most notably, the ugly, otherworldly Gorgonites, not the macho, jingoist Commando Elite, are the good guys. In addition to the usual technical dazzle, Dante and writers Ted Elliot, Zak Penn, Terry Rossio and Gavin Scott load the film with juicy bits of satire. Patton, Apocalypse Now and other war movies are delightfully parodied. There are even some amusingly appropriate nods to Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. To their credit, the filmmakers occasionally come up with enough imagination to go match their technical feats. The homemade weapons the Commando Elite use are creepy and may change the way you look a household appliances.

While Dante can make high-tech movies with wit and style, his use of violence is a little out of place. The movie itself isn't mean-spirited, but there are a few moments that seem a bit intense for a film that's supposed to be lampooning barbarism. It's a little too eeire when Allen (Gregory Smith), the movie's human hero, gets shot in the leg with corncob holders. This is out of line for a movie that's capitalizing on toy tie-ins.

Nonetheless, Small Soldiers is still fun, and the closing credits offer a few surprises. Small Soldiers is sometimes shaky, but it puts up a terrific fight (PG-13). Rating: 7.




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