Entering a teenage girl's bedroom, a group of renegade toy soldiers spot
her collection of Barbie-style dolls on the shelf. "Ooooh, fully poseable,
" leers one of the plastic warriors, "Permission for R&R, sir!"
Based solely on its trailers, "Small Soldiers" has been dismissed by some
as a "Toy Story" rip-off, but they're mistaken. Actually, it's a
"Gremlins" rip-off, directed by Joe Dante, who also helmed both of the
"Gremlin" films. Packed with comic mayhem and loads of pop culture
references, "Small Soldiers" is enjoyable lightweight summer fare,
despite its threadbare storyline and anemic characters.
Set in the same beatific small town where all the people in Steven
Spielberg productions live, "Small Soldiers" deals with action figures
run amuck. Implanted with computer chips pirated from the military, two
groups of toys go to war, with the Commando Elite soldiers determined to
eradicate the peaceful Gorgonites, and any humans who help them.
It's a simple, but cute concept that pays off with some big laughs,
although the finished product doesn't live up to its potential, due to a
number of poor choices from the filmmakers.
The human cast is painfully bland, just another group of sit-com
stereotypes. There's the bumbling teen hero, his preoccupied father and
ineffectual mother, the beautiful girl next door, her boobish parents,
etc., etc. They're all sketchy as can be, making it difficult to care
when they get in trouble. Only the late, greatly missed Phil Hartman
makes any impression, adding what bite he can as the neighbor girl's
Okay, since we don't care about the humans, what about the toys? Here's
where things really get odd. The appeal of a film like "Small Soldiers"
comes from the wish-fulfillment notion of seeing the toy soldier battles
we staged as children come to life, but it doesn't play out quite the way
you might expect.
The Commando Elite soldiers are actually the bad guys, little military
psychopaths out to defeat the enemy at all costs. And the Gorgonites,
monster action figures with peaceful hearts, have been pre-programmed by
the toymakers as timid losers. Their characters are sympathetic and
appealing, but we don't get a chance to know them, because their
programming ordains that they stay out of sight as much as possible.
Why would a toymaker program one of its armies to lose? I certainly have
no idea. Why would Joe Dante make a film without sympathetic characters?
Now, that one's easy. It's because Dante is far more interested in satire
and mayhem than in people. As with both of the "Gremlin" films, he loves
to fixate on funny, nasty little monsters, while whipping up colorful
ways to destroy them.
Ultimately, comic mayhem is all that "Small Soldiers" delivers.
Thankfully, Dante is pretty good at it. He uses the Commando Elite
soldiers to send up countless war movie stereotypes. Look for satiric
nods at everything from "Apocalypse Now" to "The Dirty Dozen."
Speaking of the "Dirty Dozen," don't be surprised if you get a strong
sense of deja vu, as several veterans of the 1967 World War II flick turn
up here. Ernest Borgnine provides the voice of Commando Kip Killagin,
with Jim Brown as Butch Meathook, George Kennedy as Brick Bazooka and
Bruce Dern as Link Static. Tommy Lee Jones heads the troops as leader
Keep your ears peeled for another mini-reunion, with "Spinal Tap" stars
Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer providing voices for
the Gorgonites. Frank Langella plays Archer, the spokesman for the gentle
"Small Soldiers" virtually bursts at the seams with pop culture
references. Standing over a fallen comrade, leader Chip Hazard solemnly
intones, "his battery has died, but his memory keeps going and going and
going." A doorbell rings the key notes from "Close Encounters of the
Third Kind," one of several nods to executive producer Steven Spielberg.
Dante even makes references to his own work, with "Gizmo" turning up as
an online password.
Seamlessly blending computer graphics with live action footage, the film
has a number of well-done set pieces. Particularly striking is a creepy
sequence where the Commandos fit the neighbor girl's "Gwendy" dolls with
computer chips, leading to a nightmarish Barbie-goes-berserk scene where
the young woman finds herself under attack from her own dolls. "Let's
give her a makeover," says one psycho-Gwendy ominously, while another
horribly mutilated doll coos "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful."
There's a lot of clever moments in "Small Soldiers," but ultimately the
film still feels like a warmed-over "Gremlins." Joe Dante has a real
knack for cartoonish sadism and light satire, but he's covered this turf
before. Had the human characters been less bland, or the Gorgonites less
timid, they might have provided the spark to ignite this story's
potential. As it is, "Small Soldiers" is another sterile summertime
trifle, frenetic, funny and quickly forgettable.
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott