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Small SoldiersSmall Soldiers

Full Mattel Jacket! Isn’t it strange that while Steven Spielberg decides to go for complete horrifying realism on the battle front in Saving Private Ryan, his friend Joe Dante goes for total Fantasy with his war games project under the same DreamWorks banner. However, just as Spielberg shuffles brutal hard core gore with unpalatably sentimental patriotism in his war effort, Dante wages a similar battle royal between Gremlins and Toy Story inclinations. Except with Dante’s playroom Platoon it’s the audience who loses.

Small Soldiers is the same old ‘technology run amok’ nightmare as viewed before in everything from Metropolis to Westworld tarted up with state-of-the-art special effects and Dante’s fan boy eye for smart nostalgic details. Sure, it’s very clever technically and much of it is colourfully engaging in a comicbook way. But it’s absolutely nothing new and out of all the vintage war movies it parallels somewhere along the way, the most appropriate one would be The Longest Day. For it takes ages to set up what is such a simple premise and then over-explains it into boredom.

The GI Joe inspired Commando Elite, and their sworn enemies, the monstrous Gorgonites, are the latest hi-tech toys about to hit the high streets of America courtesy of Globotech, a former defence industry conglomerate. They walk, talk and are lifelike to a degree never before seen on the market. But because chairman Gil Mars (Denis Leary) wants the product line in the shops super fast, one of the panicked inventors, Larry Benson (Jay Mohr), adds a faulty computer chip already declared dangerous by the military.

The result is an unstoppable army of armed thinking Action Men, not interested in truces or negotiation with the Gorgonites, who end up in idyllic Eerie, Indiana, oops, sorry, Winslow Corners, Ohio (same difference!), at a quiet toy shop owned by Stuart Abernathy (Kevin Dunn). Actually it’s his disgraced son Alan (Gregory Smith) who receives an early shipment of the mini infantry and then spends the rest of the movie trying to stop them wrecking the town as they track down their plastic prey. Throughout the explosive manoeuvres and mayhem led by the teeny troops, Alan win-over girl-next-door Christy (Kirsten Dunst) and gets his parents to trust him again.

Despite the slick professionalism and techno-brilliance on show in Dante’s ‘All Quiet on the Toys ’R’ Us Front’, Small Soldiers is as pint-sized in ambition as its title suggests. If there’s supposed to be some pacifist message in this toy box of tricks, it certainly has got lost by the time Commando Elite top man Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones’s voice) tortures head Gorgonite Archer (Frank Langella’s voice) by hanging him over the Abernathy’s sink waste disposal unit. Many will respond with guffaws over precisely that awkward mixture of comedy and carnage as they did in Gremlins, but others will find the Matinée director’s brand of unsubtle mean-spiritedness a little too much to bear in such a kiddie-orientated concept.

Dante’s inclusion of crafty nods to Patton and The Green Berets, equally matched by composer Jerry Goldsmith interweaving famous war songs into his score, does go a long way in keeping the battle of the bulging cliché at bay. Most fun is the sequence where Chip Hazard brings a back-up squad of deformed Gwendy Dolls to life in Christy’s bedroom via macabre Frankenstein operations. Add a Gulliver touch to the creepy proceedings and in this one instance Small Soldiers fires on all imaginative guns from Navarone even if the weak playing by lead Smith does take belief a bridge too far.

(Starburst rating: 5)

Small Soldiers picture copyright Universal / Dreamworks SKG
"...as pint-sized in ambition as its title suggests"  
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