Small Soldiers is a combination of Toy Story and Gremlins, two movies I dislike intensely, so perhaps it makes a strange kind of sense that I liked Small Soldiers a lot. The movie’s subtext isn’t as self-pitying as Toy Story‘s was (that movie was about Disney’s insecurity in the face of fickle kids who discarded Disney’s Woody in favor of the competition’s Buzz Lightyear), and it doesn’t have the distasteful split-personality tone of Gremlins, which began cute and then soured into ugly mayhem. No, this movie begins cynical and sleek and stays that way — and the subtext here is that militarism disguised as kids’ entertainment can backfire, or open fire on you.
At the beginning, an electronic-toy executive (Denis Leary, perfectly cast) is impatient with toys that teach children. Where’s the fun in that? He wants toys that kick ass. Soon enough, the kick-ass toys are rolling off the belt: the jug-eared, hardcore Commando Elite — think G.I. Joe on steroids — and their enemies, the mutant Gorgonites. These action figures are so advanced they can walk, talk, and act on their own. And when they all arrive at a forlorn toy shop, the Commandos wage war on the Gorgonites. Why? Because that’s what they’re programmed to do. Never mind that the Gorgonites don’t seem as if they could swat a fly — indeed, they’re so pacifist their best defense is to hide.
The subversive meanings of Small Soldiers are deep enough to wade through — it’s no accident that the unsympathetic, violent, threatening Commandos are gung-ho American patriots. And the script (by Ted Elliott, Zak Penn, Adam Rifkin, Terry Rossio, and Gavin Scott) is hip to the notion that war-game toys (and, by extension, shootout video games) are uncomfortably close to the desensitizing process used by the military to teach soldiers to kill. Director Joe Dante, whose work of late has flirted with politics (he did the satire The Second Civil War for HBO last year), uses the toys to bravura effect. The Commandos move in jerky, phallic rhythms — they’re like little plastic Buck Turgidsons — while the Gorgonites, whether becalmed or manic, glide smoothly in a way that makes them seem more human than the humanoid Commandos. (Stan Winston, who created the toys, should be remembered at Oscar time.)
In outline, Small Soldiers is much like Gremlins. In both, a young dreamer (Gregory Smith here) has a crush on a beautiful girl he can’t have (Kirsten Dunst, on her way to becoming a heartbreaker); the intrusion of small, toylike friends and antagonists brings the young lovers together, as if to tell them to put away childish things and come of age. Luckily, Kirsten Dunst is far more talented and appealing than Phoebe Cates ever was, and she doesn’t get stuck with a grotesque backstory about a dead dad stuck in a chimney. Instead, she gets a great, visually resonant scene involving dozens of re-animated “Gwendies” (Barbies) recruited and modified by the Commandos. The bald, deformed Gwendies may remind some viewers of Sid’s tortured toys in Toy Story, yet they have a weird comic terror all their own — the strangeness of doll-like beauty violated. When the Gwendies join the Commandos on the front lawn for moonlit combat, it’s like a suburban playpen version of Night of the Living Dead.
Small Soldiers will be criticized for the wrong reasons — i.e., it’s either too much like or not enough like Toy Story; it’s not really for kids; its real heroes are the mostly passive Gorgonites. But this is still a smarter and hipper entertainment than Disney’s overhyped Pixar-fest. For one thing, there are no dippy songs — just kick-ass covers of “War” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” among others. And the action is set in the real world, unlike Toy Story, which unfolded entirely inside a computer-created universe and made me feel terribly claustrophobic and itchy (I needed some fresh air after five minutes). Like Spielberg, Dante proves that a real director can use CGI seamlessly — to heighten reality and fantasy, not to provide a CGI demo reel.
Dante fans will appreciate Robert Picardo and the great Dick Miller in their obligatory cameos; Kevin Dunn and Ann Magnuson make quirkier-than-usual parents (Dante seems to like dads who never grew up, who invent things or run toy shops); and Phil Hartman, once you get over the initial twinge of sadness, is in fine smarmy form as an obnoxious technophile neighbor. Best of all, for adults, is the movie’s range of guest voices — from Tommy Lee Jones leading the Commandos (made up of a few of the surviving Dirty Dozen) to Frank Langella presiding over the Gorgonites (voiced by all three Spinal Tap members) to the sly vocal bits by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci as the Gwendies. This may just be the first DreamWorks production you can recommend with a straight face — though Joe Dante never directs with a straight face, and that’s what sets Small Soldiers above its bigger competition this season.