Small Soldiers (1998)

D: Joe Dante
S: Gregory Smith, Kirstin Dunst, Voices of: Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Langella

Enjoyable update of Gremlins with plastic toys running amok instead of monsters with big ears. In fact, in a not unknowing nod to convention and a nice variant on the usual merchandising tie-in formula, the monsters are in fact the good guys. Under the influence of heartless megaexec Denis Leary toymakers design a set of military action figures and a set of monsters to fight with the benefit of ultra-secret military mirochips which make them responsive and interactive. When young Gregory Smith and delivery man Dick Miller activate one of each, the battle begins, with the merciless commandoes attempting to track down and kill the peaceful monsters. In the manner of these things, the experience of battling the baddies teaches Smith a thing or two about life and wins him the love and respect of Kirstin Dunst.

With typical in-joke humour, excellent special effects and character design, Joe Dante delivers an immensely enjoyable movie here, though its audience is perhaps a little bit older than the subject matter suggests. Its plethora of references to other films and its tidbits of cultural criticism make it all the more fun for the attuned, though younger viewers may find themselves focusing almost entirely on the antics of the toys. These antics, as many have noted, are violent and most certainly not suggested behaviour for well adjusted humans, but then the film does not present them that way. Instead the gung-ho military/industrial complex attitudes of the commandoes (voiced by several members of the original Dirty Dozen and Tommy Lee Jones) are contrasted with the passive monsters (voiced by the stars of This is Spinal Tap and Frank Langella), whose major skills revolve around hiding from people. In what many may seem a hypocritical message in a major Hollywood film with the usual merchandising tie-ins, it endorses toys which teach positive values and people who treat others with tolerance and understanding.

Even so it provides enough genuine laughs and a good quotient of well mounted action set pieces to justify its place in the release schedules. There is relativley little hollow sermonising in the manner of the kind of Saturday morning cartoons the film satirises, and it it all mounted with craft and skill. Stan Winston does a marvellous job with the non-human characters, who seem at once plastic action figures and living beings due to attention to detail in movement and sound effects. The vocal characterisations are smart and to the point, though they lack the intricacy of those in a fully animated feature. The human cast aquit themselves well despite the inevitable dysfunctionality which has by now become a tiresome cliche rather than a nod to reality (compare Kevin Dunn's toyshop owner to Hoyt Axton as the inventor in Gremlins. Mind you, Kirstin Dunst's character is a little bit unhinged in a way that is not drawn out in very much detail but gives us one or two slightly unsettling moments. Jerry Goldsmith contributes a score which references his own Patton at one point to the delight of those who get the joke, and the scene where he uses Franz Waxman's theme for The Bride of Frankenstein is priceless.

Perhaps this is where the problem with the movie lies. It is difficult to determine its audience, because while the humour is generally quite sharp and self-referential, the overall content is fairly juvenile. Yet while the action is frenetic and entertaining, it is sometimes a little too graphic for younger children. This criticism was and still can be levelled at Gremlins also, of course, and yet it has its admirers aplenty. Small Soldiers should find an audience somewhere in the middleground of tolerant but relatively cine-literate adults and teenagers, which is not to say that children won't enjoy it. It lacks the wonder and heart of The Indian in the Cupboard and is not likely to out perform Mulan at the box-office, but there are many things to enjoy about Small Soldiers for those who care to give it a chance.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.