Screenplay : Ted Elliott, Zak Penn, Adam Rifkin, Terry Rossio, and Gavin Scott
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Gregory Smith (Alan Abernathy), Kirsten Dunst (Christy Fimple), Jay Mohr (Larry Benson), David Cross (Irwin Wayfair), Phil Hartman (Phil Fimple), Kevin Dunn (Stuart Abernathy), Ann Magnuson (Irene Abernathy), Wendy Schaal (Marion Fimple), Denis Leary (Gil Mars), Dick Miller (Joe)
With its computer-generated toys that move and speak like real people, "Small Soldiers" will most likely be compared to 1995's "Toy Story." However, what it most closely resembles is "Battlefield," a 10-page short story by Stephen King that appears in his 1978 anthology "Nightshift."
"Battlefield" is an ironic, grisly little tale of a professional hitman who receives a package filled with G.I. Joe-type action figures that come to life and kill him. It's a demented, dark, funny story, and it works if you give yourself in to the notion of living action figures. I always thought "Battlefield" would make a great visual movie -- how riotous would it be to watch an army of tiny soldiers waging war against a life-sized man?
Of course, when I read that story many years ago, special effects did not exist with the capacity to render realistically such a scene. But now, with the increased realism of animatronic puppetry and, more importantly, the development of computer animation, anything is possible. So now we get "Small Soldiers," one of whose five screenwriters must have been influenced by "Battlefield." As a movie ostensibly aimed at kids, "Small Soldiers" walks a thin line, constantly mixing darker elements with an overall tone that is silly and carefree.
If "Small Soldiers" also brings to mind "Gremlins" (1984), it's not just because of the cameo presence of Dick Miller, who played the unforgettable Mr. Futterman. "Small Soldiers" was helmed by "Gremlins" director Joe Dante, who seems to have a knack for rendering comic chaos and violence in the usually sedate setting of suburban America. In "Gremlins," he did a wonderful job of unleashing the titular monsters on a small slice of Americana, and a few years later, he made everybody doubt the normality of their own backyards in the satirical and somewhat disappointing "The 'Burbs" (1988).
In "Small Soldiers," the soldiers of the title are the Commando Elite, a group of high-tech new action figures who are powered by military microprocessors. The Commandos are the brainchild of two hapless toymakers, Irwin Wayfair (David Cross) and Larry Benson (Jay Mohr), whose company was recently bought by the aptly named Globotech Corporation. Globotech's president, Gil Mars (Denis Leary), is trying to find viable means for making money off all the military technology his company built to feed the Cold War. An amusing commercial for Globotech that opens the film offers "military technology at private sector prices."
The X-1000, the computer chip that powers the Commando Elite, is actually an intelligent learning chip designed for missile guidance systems. When the Commandos are programmed by the toymakers to fight another set of toys, a group of peaceful mutants called Gorgonites, the toys take matters into their own hands and all hell breaks loose. Led by Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones at his gruff best), the Commandos will stop at nothing to decimate the Gorgonites, led by the soft-spoken, oddly noble Archer (voiced by Frank Langella).
Caught in the middle of the fury are two young teenagers with two of the worst names in recent movies, Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) and Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst). Of course, their parents don't believe them when they blame the toys for wrecking Alan's father's toy store, making a mess in the kitchen garbage disposal, or stealing power tools to wage their war (just like no one believed Zach Galligan when he said Gremlins were on the loose).
"Small Soldiers" could have been impenetrably stupid or excessively violent, but luckily it is neither. In fact, despite its darker elements, it comes across as a simple, entertaining yarn, with a good deal of fantasy, action, and even some satirical jabs at the military, big corporations, and especially war movies. "Small Soldiers" parodies some of the greatest American military films; it co-opts overdramatic war dialogue ("It's just a flesh wound, sir"), borrows music from "Patton" (1970), and has a great knock-off of the "Flight of the Valkyries" sequence from "Apocalypse Now" (1979).
The movie benefits from two fine performances by Smith and Dunst as the teen heroes. While their characters are mostly stereotypes (he's the sensitive troublemaker and she's the good girl with a wild streak), Smith and Dunst give them just enough life and vitality to keep them interesting. Phil Hartman, in his last screen appearance before his untimely death last month, has an amusing turn as Christy's technology-obsessed father (he cuts down an entire tree so his satellite dish will get better reception).
But the real pleasure in "Small Soldiers" are the toys themselves. Brought to life by a seamless combination of Industrial Light & Magic digital wizardry and animatronic effects by Stan Winston ("Jurassic Park"), the Commando Elite and Gorgonites are great fun to watch. And behind all the visual technology is a group of outstanding actors who give the toys their voices. In addition to Jones, the Commandos are voiced by members of the original "Dirty Dozen" (1967), including Jim Brown, George Kennedy, and Clint Walker. And who voices the Gorgonites? None other than Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christopher Guest, the original cast members of "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984).
"Small Soldiers" is a film that can entertain both children and adults. There's enough visceral action and excitement for the kids (although some of the scarier sequences may be too intense for really little kids), as well as plenty of movie in-jokes and social satire to keep adults paying attention.
©1998 James Kendrick