Small Soldiers

1998, PG-13, 108 min. Directed by Joe Dante. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Gregory Smith, Jay Mohr, Phil Hartman, Kevin Dunn, Ann Magnuson, Denis Leary, Dick Miller, Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Langella, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Michael McKean.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 10, 1998

It would be easy to reduce Small Soldiers to the story's lowest common denominators and call it Toy Story meets Gremlins, but this is a Joe Dante film, and nothing's ever that simple when it comes to Dante. One of the genre's leading fantasists, Dante's warped sense of humor -- gleaned, I think, working under the tutelage of Roger Corman way back on Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha way back when -- is coupled with his ongoing fascination with the diminutive (see the aforementioned Piranha, Gremlins, or Innerspace) and his genuinely unique sense of aesthetics. Unfortunately, Small Soldiers never quite rises to the level of Dante's previous work and the result makes the film feel like a transparent, though enthusiastically directed, marketing ploy: Coming soon to a Toys 'R Us near you. Smith plays Alan Abernathy, a young teen with a troubled past who one day signs for a shipment of military action figures -- the Commando Elite -- while taking care of his father's toy store. Although liberal dad (Dunn) is averse to G.I. Joes and the like, Alan feels he can sell the product while his father is out of town and make some quick cash for the financially strapped toy outlet. What he doesn't know is that the toys have been accidentally fitted-out with state-of-the-art military computer chips that give them the ability to think and act for themselves. Along with the Commando Elite arrive the hideous Gorgonites, a Todd McFarlane-esque gaggle of plastic toy mutants who are the Commandos' sworn enemies. When the rival toys begin fighting in earnest (actually the Gorgonites are programmed to “hide and lose,” so it's the Commandos who are doing most of the fighting), they wreck the toy store, the neighborhood, and proceed from there. Meanwhile, Alan falls for the lovely girl-next-door, Christy (Dunst), and has to work up the nerve to straighten out not only his life but the future of the flesh-and-blood world as well. With Tommy Lee Jones and Frank Langella providing the voices of the opposing toy leaders (Major Chip Hazard and Archer, respectively) and the relatively stellar casting, you'd think Small Soldiers would be a far more rollicking ride than it really is. Too much of what goes on here seems rushed and poorly planned; the backstory involving the creation of these out-of-control Lilliputians is glossed over in a matter of minutes and even Alan's budding romance is in the end a simplistic script device. As in almost all of Dante's films, regulars Miller and Jackie Joseph (Audrey in the original Little Shop of Horrors) make appearances, but even that feels tacked on. And like Gremlins, I think, the escalating levels of violence in Small Soldiers will distress some parents who may be expecting Toy Story 2. Stan Winston's miniature and CGI effects are wonderful, but they can't conceal an obviously weak script in what is unfortunately a footnote to Dante's better work.

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Small Soldiers, Joe Dante, Kirsten Dunst, Gregory Smith, Jay Mohr, Phil Hartman, Kevin Dunn, Ann Magnuson, Denis Leary, Dick Miller, Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Langella, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Michael McKean

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