Wednesday, July 22, 1998

Small Soldiers

Posted By on Wed, Jul 22, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Just as Steven Spielberg could not have made Saving Private Ryan without Platoon, Joe Dante could not have made Small Soldiers without Toy Story.

Vietnam and its subsequent treasure trove of graphic, cinematic mayhem proved that the Duke was dead and, with him, the jingoistic and largely bloodless heroism of World War II films. When it comes to war at the end of the century, irony and hindsight are our guides. So what are we to make of this little ditty about commando toys running amok, a film ostensibly for the kiddies but piquant enough for adults. Or is it?

Small Soldiers opens in the offices of Heartland Play Systems, a toy company that has just been acquired by Globotech, a conglomerate specializing in defense contracts. Globotech's owner and CEO, Gil Mars (a particularly manic Denis Leary), wants a revolutionary new toy, something hot. So designers cook up a series of foot-high soldiers and monsters containing a computer chip that allows them to move and speak on their own. Alas, the chip is a top-secret military release complete with artificial intelligence and a wild streak. Ollie Stone, eat your heart out.

Onward to Oblivionville, USA, where geeky teen Alan (Gregory Smith), left to run his father's toy store, receives a shipment of "The Commando Elite" and their enemies "The Gorgonites." Before they are placed on display, the toys decamp from their boxes. The commandos, led by crusty veteran Chip Hazard (voice by Tommy Lee Jones), declare war on the gentle-but-hideous Gorgonites (check out the deformed Barbies) and their leader, Archer (voice by Frank Langella). Alan, his dream girl, Christy (Kirsten Dunst), and the kids' parents involuntarily become involved in the battles between the tiny opponents.

As usual with these things, in-jokes and pop culture referencing is high, especially war film clichés, Vietnam and World War II inclusive. It's all rather tame in the way one might expect from Dante, responsible for the egregiously cute Gremlins, which has essentially been grafted onto Toy Story to produce Small Soldiers. Special effects guru Stan Winston and a big cast of big name voices make the toys come to life, but Dante nurses them into banality. If you're going to do parody, get out the knives not the pea shooters.

With a bit of gore, a creepy soundtrack and a cameo from Chucky, we might well be watching Child's Play 4. But this is a film playing strictly for laughs, what there are of them. Amusing at times, but disappointing in the long run.

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