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With: Gregory Smith, Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, Denis Leary, Kevin Dunn, Ann Magnuson, Jay Mohr, David Cross, Wendy Schaal, Jacob Smith, Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Belinda Balaski, Rance Howard, Jackie Joseph, and the voices of Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Langella, George Kennedy, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, Clint Walker, Bruce Dern, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Christina Ricci
Written by: Gavin Scott, Adam Rifkin, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Directed by: Joe Dante
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some menacing action/violence and brief drug references
Running Time: 108
Date: 07/10/1998

Small Soldiers (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Toys of War

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Nearly all of Joe Dante's movies have either been mis-marketed or just generally misunderstood, except maybe Gremlins, which was misunderstood in a good way, as a Spielberg-produced summer creature movie. When Small Soldiers came out in the summer of 1998, critics were appalled that it seemed to be aimed at kids, and yet it was a violent, PG-13 movie; some even complained that it seemed like a marketing device for a fictitious line of toys. These were, of course, perceptions that had nothing to do with the movie that was actually made and shown. And the movie, as it was made and shown, is quite brilliant.

(I had just begun working as a critic at the time, but I remember that I missed the press screening due to a conflict with of a screening of Lethal Weapon 4. At the time, I decided that Jet Li was more exciting. I didn't catch up with Small Soldiers until DVD.)

Perhaps critics took offense at the clever, satirical way that Dante skewers the dark side of human nature. In the movie, two lines of toys are rushed into production. The Commando Elite are to be the good guys, and the aliens Gorgonites are to be the bad guys. These toys are supposed to "play back," and so a desperate toy designer (Jay Mohr) breaks into the computer and steals high-tech weapons technology to power the toys.

Meanwhile, a boy, Alan (Gregory Smith), whose father owns a toy shop, signs for a shipment of the new toys without his father's knowledge. The toys arrive, and Alan's cute neighbor Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst) buys the Commando Elite leader, Chip Hazard, for her brother, while the Gorgonite leader, Archer, sneaks into Alan's backpack. It's not long before the toys come to life and begin annihilating the neighborhood and anything, or anyone, else that gets in the way.

The big twist, of course, is that the good guy soldier toys are really sadistic, power hungry, and downright evil, while the aliens are peaceful and gentle and not at all dangerous. But perhaps a subtler theme is that, at least in concept, very little actually separates war toys and actual weapons of war. The movie builds to an incredible storm of chaos, and it's several things at once. It's scary, and it's fun. It's shocking, and it's exhilarating. The movie wants you to have fun, but also wants you to think about why you're having fun.

The animation and the voicework is tops, with Tommy Lee Jones giving a great performance as Chip Hazard, and Frank Langella as the commanding, yet gentle voice of Archer. Some of the other soldiers are voiced by veterans of The Dirty Dozen, i.e. George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, and Clint Walker. (In addition to his social commentary, Dante is well aware of the role movies play in our view of society.) Dante regular Dick Miller, a graduate of the Roger Corman camp, once again turns up as the delivery truck driver, Joe, and Phil Hartman had his last movie role here. There are quite a few other voice performances that movie fans will enjoy discovering.

The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum published a review of Small Soldiers that is one of the all-time great, most audacious pieces of film writing, comparing it to the summer's more celebrated war movie, Saving Private Ryan, and finding that Small Soldiers was the true masterpiece of the two. I like both movies, but it does help to illustrate how we tend to allow movie marketing to influence the way we see movies. Small Soldiers deserves to be re-evaluated, which fortunately also means that it can finally be enjoyed, too.

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