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SMALL SOLDIERS (director: Joe Dante; screenwriters: Ted Elliott/Zak Penn/Adam Rifkin/Terry Rossio/Gavin Scott; cinematographer: Jamie Anderson; editors: Marshall Harvey/Michael Thau; music: Jerry Goldsmith; cast: Gregory Smith (Alan Abernathy), Kirsten Dunst (Christy Fimple), Kevin Dunn (Stuart Abernathy), David Cross (Irwin Wayfair), Jay Mohr (Larry Benson), Denis Leary (Gil Mars), Phil Hartman (Phil Fimple), Ann Magnuson (Irene Abernathy), Dick Miller (Joe), Wendy Schaal (Marion Fimple), Alexandra Wilson (Ms Kegel), Robert Picardo (Ralph Quist), Jonathan Bouck (Brad)Voices: Frank Langella (Archer), Tommy Lee Jones (Major Chip Hazard), Christopher Guest (Slamfist/Scratch-It), Ernest Borgnine (Kip Killigan), Jim Brown (Butch Meathook), Bruce Dern (Link Static), Clint Walker (Nick Nitro), Michael McKean (Insaniac), Harry Shearer (Punch-It), Sarah Michelle Gellar & Christina Ricci (Gwendy’s Dolls); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Michael Finnell/Colin Wilson; Dreamworks Pictures/Universal; 1998)
“Smart satirical action-comedy about talking action toys.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Joe Dante (“Gremlins”/”Matinee”/”The Howling”) directs this smart satirical action-comedy about talking action toys. The film has a wonderful underlying acerbic humor and a sense of wicked intelligence, as it pretends to be a children’s picture while it attacks the entire American culture for being a war-mongering one. Its main point it hammers home is that a new line of action toys ‘create war because war is all they know.’ This is cleverly used as an analogy to the U.S. military-industrial complex. It follows along the same fantasy narrative structure as Toy Story and is basically a reworking of the Gremlins’ plot, but has a more grungy attitude.

The giant defense industry firm Globotech takes over a small toy company, Heartland Play Systems, and its aggressive and arrogant CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary) fires everyone from Heartland except for two toy designers, the fawning company man Larry Benson (Jay Mohr) and the nerdy Irwin Wayfair (David Cross). Mars gives the green light to develop a new line of action figures made up of the Commando Elites and the Gorgonites, and requests that the toys act like the ones in TV commercials and interact with the children. To accomplish this in the three month time frame ordered by the boss and thereby save their jobs, Larry secretly gets hold of cutting-edge micro-processor computer chips from the firm’s military research department that was meant only for the Department of Defense. When installed into the Commando action figures, it turns them into fanatical killer supersoldiers.

Teenager Alan (Gregory Smith) is left alone to run his father’s (Kevin Dunn) toy store in the neat little suburban community they just moved to after the misunderstood kid was bounced from two schools. Alan’s dad thinks his son can’t do anything right and only wishes to remain stress-free. When a trucker named Joe shows up with a batch of Globotech’s newest “voice activated” commando toys, that won’t go into the stores until later, the kid makes a deal with the trucker to sell the toys under the table without his dad’s knowledge and bring some needed cash into the store. Alan says the reason the toy store is not doing well is because his dad won’t carry war toys (presumably the local Wal-Mart or a similar type of department store does), and he just wants to help.

But the action figures escape from their box and carry on a real war as the Commando Elites. Under the leadership of Major Chip Hazard (the voice of Tommy Lee Jones) the Commandos are programmed to attack the benign Gorgonites, who are trained only to hide and search for their ancestral homeland of Gorgon. The Gorgonite emissary is Archer (voice of Frank Langella), who informs the startled Alan of what’s going down when he finds the store wrecked, all the action figures missing, and his house and his neighbor’s under siege. In his neighbor’s house, the foolish Phil Fimple (Phil Hartman, in his last film role) can’t comprehend that his daughter Christy (Kirsten Dunst) has been tied up by Barbie Dolls, called Gwendy Dolls (the voices of Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar), gone insane, and held hostage by the Commandos who want her to reveal where the Gorgonites are hiding. But to the rescue comes ‘the shining knight’ Alan to save his dream girl and the friendly Gorgonites, as the two houses are caught in the middle of the crossfire between the warring parties.

The Commandos’ voices are supplied by members of the original ”Dirty Dozen” cast; while the voices of the Gorgonites are supplied by Spinal Tap. Stan Winston was in charge of animation and animatronics, and did an amazing job with the special effects–a combination of digital imagery and puppet animatronics. The film’s best quote has Leary tell his toy designers, who fret about childrens’ toys being violent “Don’t call it violence–call it action. Kids love action.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”