Small Soldiers

Okay Joe Dante, you owe me a buck! I paid $4 for a bargain matinee of “Small Soldiers,” and sorry to say, I didn’t even get $4 worth of entertainment out of it. Pity those poor souls who pay full price for this movie. Unfortunately, the film seems to strike a chord with 13 year old boys, which in most parts of the country, is one year too old to qualify for the child admission.

Yeah, they get you coming and going in “Small Soldiers.” I really liked this movie the first two times I saw it as “Gremlins” and “Toy Story.” Now it’s just a pastiche of better films told with impressive special effects and a sad excuse for a story.

I’m really disappointed in Dante, who was (awe heck, still is) one of my favorite directors. From his humble beginnings with Roger Corman (“Piranha,” “Hollywood Boulevard”) to his major success (“Gremlins”), Dante has displayed a visual style all his own. His films were filled with delightful in-jokes and constant references from other films. He was hip before Quentin Tarantino made it cool to be hip again.

There’s nothing remotely hip about “Small Soldiers,” a film that just screams high concept and burger stand tie-ins. There’s a glimmer of a story buried in the high-tech screenplay by numerous writers (no finger pointing here).

When a Bill Gates type billionaire (Denis Leary) buys a toy company, he insists that the action figures do everything that the commercials show them doing. That means programming them with a computer chip so they walk and talk. Good idea, but when one of the designers installs military weapons chips in the dolls, they become aggressive and inherit actual intelligence.

Imagine the possibilities. That’s what the screenwriters and Dante fail to do. For some reason, they can’t kick this film into gear. It takes forever to get started, and when it finally does, it’s a case of too little too late.

First off, and this is no slight to the actor who plays him, but the main protagonist is a bit of a wimp, and even though he’s forced to rise to the occasion, I didn’t care if he lived or died. That’s a bad thing, a situation made even worse by the fact that all of the actors are trapped in roles no thicker than a dime. The actors are nothing more than targets, and are forced to do things that make no sense except to help the nonsensical plot advance.

There’s a puppy dog love story at the core of the film, one that immediately suffers when Alan (Gregory Smith) opens a Pandora’s Box by securing a set of the new fangled toys against his father’s wish. Of course all hell breaks loose when the Commando Elite, led by Major Chip Hazard (voice of Tommy Lee Jones), set out to accomplish their mission: destroy the goofy looking but noble monster creatures.

Armed with weapons and life- long batteries, the commandos do whatever it takes to accomplish their mission. That includes kidnapping Alan’s new girlfriend Christy (Kirsten Dunst) and holding her hostage until he turns over the creatures. This leads to an all-out war involving some, but not all of the neighbors. It’s all told matter-of-factly with nary a trace of style nor wit.

Dante’s trademark visual jokes are nowhere to be found, and the only in-joke is that the remaining members of the “Dirty Dozen” cast voice the Commando Elite. However, 13 year-old boys won’t even know who Ernest Borgnine and Clint Walker are.

“Small Soldiers” is rather vicious and mean-spirited. There’s lots of mayhem, and a rather sordid “Frankenstein” spoof that have the commandos turning a room full of quasi-Barbie’s into an army of killers. Little girls will have nightmares, while little boys will get fried if they try to imitate the heroic actions of Alan at the end of the film.

A major miscalculation that probably cost a bundle of cash. For the amount of money they spent on this film they could have designed and manufactured the real thing. Now I would pay to see that.



Gregory Smith, Kirsten Dunst, Kevin Dunn, Ann Magnuson, Phil Hartman, Jay Mohr, David Cross, Denis Leary, Dick Miller in a film directed by Joe Dante. Rated PG-13. 99 Min.


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