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One of the biggest surprises in Small Soldiers comes when the final credits roll and you see the names of all the actors who provided the voices for the characters, including Jim Brown, Bruce Dern, George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Christina Ricci. The shock comes because so few of the voices--besides Frank Langella, Tommy Lee Jones, and Ernest Borgnine--were recognizable. This situation points at one of the main problems with this movie--the lack of personalities for the toys. Unlike Toy Story, where the toys each had discernible personalities, Small Soldiers gives its toy characters few opportunities to ingratiate themselves with the audience.
In addition, the movie is filled with opportunities for satire, but only on a few occasions does the screenplay provide much bite. The movie's opening salvo, a sharply satirical commercial for a munitions company that has branched out into the toy industry ("We're turning swords to ploughshares for you and your family," boasts the commercial's narrator), promises much more than the movie ends up delivering. The movie also provides a funny scene where the leader of the Commando Elite strikes a pose reminiscent of George C. Scott in Patton and addresses a platoon of action figures: Major Chip Hazard spews out a string of clichés, each blending into the next before the previous one is finished. But witty scenes such as these are few. For the most part, the filmmakers were content to rest on the "wow" factor provided by Stan Winston's amazing action figures. Yes, the action figures look remarkable, but the story that accompanies the special effects is dismal.
In part, the story is a reworking of the Gremlins' plot, which isn't surprising because the director of Small Soldiers, Joe Dante, also directed Gremlins: a boy happens upon an unusual bunch of toys that come to life and wage a vicious war. Sound familiar? But whereas Gremlins gave us characters that we could care about, Small Soldiers gives us a horribly bland group of kids and adults. Even Phil Hartman (in his last role) can't provide much help. And it's disappointing to see a fine actress such as Ann Magnuson reduced to playing a paper-thin character in support of an action figure cast. Only Denis Leary, as the CEO of a munitions company, leaves much of an impression.
Most of the story revolves around a boy named Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), who is a generic, misunderstood young teenager, and his next-door neighbor Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst). When Alan helms his father's toy store, he convinces the delivery man (Roger Corman veteran Dick Miller) to leave behind a shipment of new, voice-activated action figures. But we know that the toys are dangerous stuff, for the toy's developer used surplus military computer chips to power the action figures--super-sophisticated chips capable of independent thought. So in short order, the action figures are busy following their prime objective by waging war. The Commando Elite (led by Tommy Lee Jones as the voice of Major Chip Hazard) seeks to eradicate the Gorgonites (led by Frank Langella as the voice of Archer), a race of monstrous but gentle creatures who seek their homeland.
This situation is rife with possibilities but the movie quickly becomes just another noisy action movie. Any potential for satire is wasted under a barrage of explosions and crashes. Most disappointingly the plight of the Gorgonites never becomes particularly compelling because the screenplay only delivers the most generic possibilities. The Gorgonites don't want to fight and they resist fighting until the Commando Elite threaten to wipe out the boy and his family.
The filmmakers do provide a few interesting twists. In a macabre development, the Commando Elite transplant computer chips into the heads of several dozen Barbie dolls, resulting in dolls who dole out fashion tips while attacking like a pack of zombies (with voices by Sarah Michelle Gellar, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, and Christina Ricci, of The Addams Family). In addition, the Commando Elite aren't heroes in the G.I. Joe mold. To the contrary, they are a fascist brigade of exterminators, with a single-minded desire to wipe out the Gorgonites and anyone who gets in their way. They create war because war is all they know--a vicious slam against the U.S. military complex. But that's it. That's the joke. And it gets run into the ground.
Other than the excellent special effects work by Stan Winston and his crew, Small Soldiers is a waste of everyone's talent.
[rating: 2 of 4 stars]