Director: Joe Dante
Cast: Gregory Smith, Kristen Dunst, Kevin Dunn, Phil Hartman, Ann Magnuson, Jay Mohr, David Cross, Denis Leary with Frank Langella and Tommy Lee Jones
Plot: Pushed to come up with a brand new toy, two toy creators put a military microchip in their new franchise, bringing the toys to life with murderous intentions.
It is rare to find a children’s film with quite a bite like Small Soldiers. While its refusal to shy away from some nasty and creepy scenes does place Small Soldiers in an uncomfortable rut between ‘too childish’ for adults and ‘too gruesome’ for kids, it does also give Dante’s movie the distinction of a PG action that genuinely thrills, rather than only being allowed to take the premise so far.
Essentially Small Soldiers amounts to a cross between Gremlins and Toy Story. While humans carry out their daily business, two toy brands, brought to life by a dangerous military microchip, wage a secret war in a quiet American town. Designed as kick-ass army toys, the Commando Elite are dedicated, unstoppable killing machines. While designed as the all American hero, their programming turns them into emotionless killers when unleashed on the streets. On the flip side of the coin, the Gorgonites, designed initially as educational goofy aliens, but relegated to bargain bucket villains for the Commando Elite, come alive as helpless monsters, their existence solely dedicated to being slaughtered by Chip Hazard and his soldiers. Of course, a plucky young teenager with a rogue past and a crush on the girl next door finds himself bang splat in the middle of the conflict and as Dante rushes towards his pulse-pounding climax, both Alan (Gregory Smith’s teen hero), and the Gorgonites learn a little something about themselves in the culture swap. While Small Soldiers is never too concerned about slowing down and debating the life meaning of a toy coming to life, like Toy Story does, a few moments do strike a chord. As Archer, the soft-spoken leader of the Gorgonites, questions Alan’s way of life with his one-sided logic, emotions are brought to the surface. Even better is an ambiguous ending which suggests happiness, but it doesn’t take too much thinking to find the hidden sadness in the moment. However, while these touching moments don’t touch on Toy Story’s soul-searching narrative, Dante is far more concerned with the action in this movie. And the action delivers. There are some great set-pieces in this one, as the Commando Elite, despite being small, come up with inventive ways to facilitate their murderous intentions. As the toy figurines hack at the adults with power tools and knives, it isn’t too difficult to be reminded of full-blown horror movie, Chucky. It isn’t too hard to imagine Dante cackling with glee as he films certain segments of this film. A toy helicopter swooping into a sieged house, a firearm assault to the backing song of Spice Girls, a horde of disfigured Barbie dolls crawling for the leads like a Beverly Hills Zombie movie…
If I had to find a negative point with Small Soldiers, it would have to be aimed at the supporting cast and how spread out they are. There are some terrific characters on show here. While no one really has the time to have a fully-fledged character arc, they are played with enough comedic energy that everyone has a place in the film. The late Phil Hartman is the techno-mad dad who steals the best lines with a lazy energy, like a comedian at the height of his career. Jay Mohr and David Cross are the technicians who built these monsters, who aren’t really given enough jokes, but work wonders with the few beats they are given. And this is part of the problem. Everyone on show here is great, but they are not really given much to do. The two teenagers at the heart of the story are Gregory Smith and Kristen Dunst. No complaints there. Both teens play the parts with natural charisma, Dunst especially proving the first half of her career was easily the more successful one. Then we have the parents, who all earn laughs in their own ways, but seem desperately clawing from screen-time, relegated to coming into their own in the finale, when we could argue it is a little too late. Mohr and Cross fuel the start and end of the film, but are suspiciously absent throughout the whole middle. And then, we are forgetting the toys themselves. While Langella and Tommy Lee Jones, as the respective leaders of the Gorgonites and Commando Elite, are on fine form, drawling iconic lines and quotable taunts, the rest of the toys are reduced to the occasional wise-crack. It is easy to miss that Dante recruited the cast of the Dirty Dozen to voice the soldiers and This Is Spinal Tap for the Gorgonites, because they are simply not given enough time to show us what they can do. The Gorgonites look interesting, but our curiosity is never sated. On the whole, Small Soldiers is great fun and even if it could have done moments better, we are hardly disappointed with the end result. In fact, it is up there with the best of 90s cinema from my childhood.
Final Verdict: Explosive fun, a PG movie that doesn’t shy away from given us some action-packed set-pieces.