'Small Soldiers' has little to like Movie review

July 10, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

A host of films seems to have inspired "Small Soldiers": "Toy Story," "Frankenstein," "The Dirty Dozen," "Patton," "Apocalypse Now," not to mention director Joe Dante's own 1984 hit "Gremlins."

Dante has even mined the classic mock-rockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap" for talent to provide voices for the animated characters of this animation-live action comedy, as well as Tommy Lee Jones and Frank Langella. The late, great Phil Hartman shows up as an obsequious techno-nerd, a role tailor-made for him, and the appealing young actors Kirsten Dunst and Gregory Smith play the film's lead live-action roles.

So what's not to like?

Plenty. For all it's got going for it, "Small Soldiers" remains a vulgar, laugh-free and occasionally perverse motion picture, too full of strong language and violence to be appropriate for anyone under 12, and too childish for anyone over that age. Although youngsters at a recent screening seemed rapt during the film's action sequences and delighted by its talking dolls, "Small Soldiers" will try the patience, sensibilities and parental discretion of most adults.

Smith plays Alan Abernathy, the son of a toy-shop owner who thinks he's helping his father's struggling business when he stocks up on a new line of toys, Gorgonites and the Commando Elite. What Alan doesn't know is that this particular toy line has been equipped with weapons-grade microchips, courtesy of a greedy toy inventor (Jay Mohr). The dolls are actually tiny robots with even tinier minds.

Once the dolls are out of their boxes, they begin to battle each other, and when Alan befriends the Gorgonite leader (voiced by Langella), he becomes the sworn enemy of Chip Hazard (Jones), chief of the Commando Elite. All manner of havoc ensues as Hazard and his men (played by "Dirty Dozen" cast members Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, George Kennedy and Clint Walker) turn mechanized tennis-ball servers into cannons, corn-on-the-cob holders into spears and a line of Barbie-like "Gwendy" dolls into a battalion of naked, albeit anatomically nTC incorrect, psycho-killers.

The Gwendy makeover scene is a good example of where "Small Soldiers" goes wrong; although it has the same subversive appeal that leads kids to depilate and otherwise deface their dolls, the sequence leaves filmgoers with a sick and creepy feeling rather than one of cathartic satisfaction. (And, as absurd as a feminist argument is in this instance, it is troubling that it only takes one male doll's brain chip to power dozens of his female counterparts.)

In fact, the whole of "Small Soldiers" leaves the filmgoer with a sick and creepy feeling, despite some OK jokes ("It's psychological warfare!" someone screams when Hazard blares the Spice Girls into a house full of hostages). The pacifist Gorgonites aren't exactly fun to root for -- their idea of nonviolence is to hide -- and aside from Archer, their leader, they're an indistinguishable bunch, even though they're played by comic geniuses Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer.

And the film's message -- that corporations and military action figures are bad, bad, bad and that small towns and wimpy toys are good, good, good -- is somehow lost within the medium of computer-generated imagery.

At the end of the day, Dante and company's attack on the evils of corporate entertainment and the wanton shilling of violence to kids, is a tad disingenuous: The complete line of "Small Soldiers" dolls and related merchandise is available in stores now.

Remember, that's bad, bad, bad -- unless you've got a piece of the action, in which case it's good, good, good.

'Small Soldiers'

Starring Kirsten Dunst, Gregory Smith, Jay Mohr, Phil Hartman

Directed by Joe Dante

Released by DreamWorks Pictures and Universal Pictures

Rated PG-13 (some menacing action/violence and brief drug references)

Running time 109 minutes

Sun score **

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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