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Small Soldiers

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Small Soldiers

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Gregory Smith
Director: Joe Dante
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: July 1998
Genres: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action, Comedy

*Also starring: Jay Mohr, Phil Hartman, Kevin Dunn, Denis Leary

Review by Andrew Hicks
2 stars out of 4

There are some movies marketed toward kids that I watch and think, "Boy, that would have scared the crap out of me when I was six." This Joe Dante film is one of those. He made GREMLINS, which was one of my favorite movies as a kid, that featured a lot of cartoonish violence and mayhem. SMALL SOLDIERS features a lot more of the same, but with a weird mix of minimum believability and maximum plot convention and twisted violence. How many other movies can you see a toy soldier shoot several corn cob holders into a kid's leg?

Many of the scenes in SMALL SOLDIERS are the kind of thing you shouldn't push off as kids entertainment. The toys in this movie machine gun nails at people, make bombs out of household chemicals, lust after Barbie dolls and tie up small children, not to mention an adolescent protagonist who climbs a giant telephone pole and sticks a metal object between the transformers. For older kids, though, there's a lot to laugh at, both intentional and unintentional. The sick fantasy violence of killer toys would work as a horror movie for an older crowd, but it's too harsh to mix with the sickening sweetness that Dante throws at us. It doesn't take a rich Hollywood executive to see a bastard offspring of TOY STORY and CHILD'S PLAY isn't a brilliant idea.

It's an interesting premise, though. A toy company is bought out by a huge conglomerate, and the CEO (Denis Leary as Denis Leary) demands "toys that actually do what they do in the commercials." That means toys that bust out of their packaging, have artificial intelligence and wage war with their toy enemies. Faced with these demands, the designers (David Cross and Jay "I Think I Just Sold Out" Mohr) power their soldiers with a surplus military intelligence chip. Gee, that's not going to backfire on them, is it?

Meanwhile, there's that androgynous dork of an early teenager who always serves as the lead in movies like these. Here it's Gregory Smith as Alan, a so-called troublemaker who would actually get beaten up for his lunch money in real life. No such luck in the movies, where he manages to steal ex-vampire girl Kirsten Dunst away from her older jock boyfriend. We know the boyfriend is a pussy because he drives a motor scooter, and this opinion is corroborated later when he runs away from the small soldiers in his boxers.

Alan's dad owns a small toy store that stocks goody-goody toys, not those fighting action figures that give kids bad role models. But when Dad goes out of town, Alan manages to talk the toy delivery guy (played by Mr. Futterman from GREMLINS, one of many inside jokes Dante includes -- Cross' password is "Gizmo") into giving him a few boxes of the new toys headed to a large chain store. The toys are divided into the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites, the former a war-loving bunch headed by the voice of Tommy Lee Jones and the latter a peaceful people. Both sets are programmed to be enemies, and the war begins shortly after Alan opens the shipment and leaves the store.

SMALL SOLDIERS has the plot elements you'd expect -- underdog Alan attracts Kirsten without question, Phil Hartman is a one-note jerk who is later proven wrong and no one believes Alan when he tries to explain away damage to his house and his dad's shop. Strangely, though, no one seems that much surprised to see themselves under seige by a bunch of toys. During the climactic final battle, when an army of toys surrounds a house, none of the neighbors think to alert the police to the noise of gunfire and explosions. The continued implausibility and the fact that the movie is too horrific for children and too juvenile for adults keeps SMALL SOLDIERS from living up to its claim of being a "big movie."

Copyright 1998 Andrew Hicks

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