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Weekly Alibi "Small Soldiers"

Toy Meets World

By Noah Masterson

JULY 20, 1998:  In 1984, Joe Dante directed Gremlins, and it was a huge success. Then he followed it up with a sequel, and it too was a huge success. Since then, he's directed such forgettable films as The 'Burbs, Matinee and Innerspace, none of which matched the quality or profit of the Gremlins one-two punch. So maybe Dante thinks our memories are short enough for him to get away with essentially updating Gremlins for the '90s. He certainly makes a valiant effort with Small Soldiers, treating it as an obvious homage to Gremlins (and thereby himself)--actor Dick Miller plays pretty much the same character in both movies, and the word "Gizmo" comes into frequent play. But ultimately Small Soldiers--like so many summer movies--tries to make up for its lack of depth or charm with lots of noise and action. The results are mixed.

The film is set in the fictional town of Winslow Corners, Ohio. We're introduced to Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), a teenager who is left in charge of his dad's struggling toy store, The Inner Child, for a few days. (Maybe the godawful name has something to do with why the store is struggling.) Alan is a crafty lad, as we soon learn when he convinces the store's delivery guy (Dick Miller) to front him a few Commando Elite and Gorgonite action figures to try to make the store a little money while his dad's out of town. He soon realizes that these action figures aren't like other toys. They move, read, make declarative sentences and strive to beat the living crap out of each other. The militant Commando Elite are programmed to destroy the peaceful Gorgonites. The Gorgonites are programmed to hide and lose. Before long, the shop is destroyed and all the action figures missing.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to add plausibility and make some sort of statement at the same time, we see the forces behind the toys. Dennis Leary plays Gil Mars, the sarcastic, fast-talking (ooh, what a stretch) CEO for the Globotech Corporation who greenlights the production of the toys. When his underlings protest the violent nature of the toys' design, Mars quips, "It's not violence--it's action!" Somehow (the explanation is hazy at best) Globotech has access to microchips from the Department of Defense, hence the toys' bloodthirsty disposition.

Back in the 'burbs, the Commando Elite have waged an all-out war on Alan and the Gorgonites--who have formed an alliance--as well as on Alan's love interest, Christy (Kirsten Dunst). The kids' parents--including Phil Hartman as Christy's dad--eventually get in on the action and lots of computer- generated chaos ensues.

The action is fairly inventive, and the special effects are superb--regardless of the fact that computer-generated images always look like just that. When the Commando Elite fashion tanks and projectiles out of household products and transform a gaggle of Barbie dolls into Borg-like androids, the assault on the humans and Gorgonites is inspired and hilarious. The filmmakers show remarkable restraint by limiting the battlefield to one city block instead of the whole universe (like in every other summer movie)--even so, the relentless action wears thin after a while. This is partly due to the fairly flat acting by the two teenage leads, but can also be credited to sloppy writing. Most of the pop culture references fail (the kids' favorite band is Led Zeppelin), and the action is sometimes too over-the-top to be plausible. (Granted, the movie has an implausible premise.)

Finally, after all the film's empty sentiments about corporate greed and its effect on independent business, the entire cast happily accepts for their damages and distress big fat checks from Globotech. In a movie about toys that will make millions of dollars in merchandising alone, perhaps those sentiments are intentionally empty. Like last year's Christmas toys, Small Soldiers is colorful, fun and entertaining for a while, but all too quickly forgotten.

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