Toy gory

How much mayhem can a bunch of foot-high action figures incite? In 'Small Soldiers,' plenty. Review by Scott Rosenberg.


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Scott Rosenberg
July 10, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

At the beginning of "Small Soldiers," a CEO points at the presentation screen: He's just watched a clip of a G.I. Joe-like action figure punching its way out of its cellophane-and-cardboard packaging. "Can they really do that?" The marketing exec shakes his head no. The boss explodes: "What if these toys could actually work, talk, kick ass? What if they could do what they do in the commercials?"

That question is much on Hollywood's mind these days, first in Disney's groundbreaking computer-animation hit "Toy Story," and now in the chipper satire "Small Soldiers." In this new, decidedly more anarchic take on the theme, militaristic action-figure toys run amok.

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Let's give the film industry a break and assume this obsession is about more than mere tie-in toy merchandising. To make a special effects-laden film today is to become an expert in making toys -- physical or digital -- walk and talk and "kick ass." It's a complex and expensive discipline, but it's aimed at a frequently trivial goal, and surely at the end of the day its practitioners must sometimes sink into a gloom of self-doubt. Like "Toy Story's" space-commander hero Buzz Lightyear in his dark night of the toy soul, they must wonder: What's the dignity in this racket, anyway?

"Toy Story" embraced innocence and taught Buzz that being the center of a young boy's play-world was a fine enough thing. "Small Soldiers" is more worldly and more cynical. That's partly because its human toy-master, a 15-year-old named Alan (Gregory Smith), is older than "Toy Story's" kid. Even more, it's because "Small Soldiers'" creators take a determinedly jaded view of both "action toys" and Hollywood's own action heroes. The film bears a fairly heavy-handed message about The Evil That Is War Toys and a cautionary invocation against corporate domination of the entertainment market. Fortunately, it's possible to ignore the morals entirely and simply enjoy the filmmakers' skill at creating carefully contained mayhem in a microcosm.

The diminutive title "Small Soldiers" must have made someone on the Universal/Dreamworks marketing team nervous -- the film's ads are dominated by the words "BIG MOVIE." But in fact, "Small Soldiers" is a little movie, and that's part of its charm: It plays unsettlingly with your sense of scale. One minute it reassures you that foot-high dolls can't possibly harm a real teenager and his family; the next, it's transforming those dolls into a lethal brigade of Green Beret-class commandos that you wouldn't want to encounter in a dark playroom.

"Small Soldiers" begins at a sleepy toy manufacturer that's been bought out by a high-tech conglomerate. The company decides to snazz up its products by adding a new microchip to two lines of action figures. The jingoistic, boot-camp-bruised Commando Elite are designed to hunt and kill a bunch of free-spirited nonconformist cut-ups known as the Gorgonites. That grudge match ought to stay confined to the text on the toy boxes. But it turns out that the new chip -- military surplus! -- is a doozy. Powered by their chips, the commandos bust loose and begin a campaign against the "Gorgonite scum" and their human allies -- chiefly Alan, who's taken a liking to the noble-sounding Gorgonite hetman (voiced-over by Frank Langella), and girl-next-door Christy (Kirsten Dunst).

How much havoc can a bunch of plastic toys wreak? Plenty, if you give them kitchen utensils, X-acto knives, remote-controlled cars -- and power tools. "Small Soldiers" is violent, but in a quaintly creative way. At one point the commandos shoot up Alan's leg with corn-cob holders; it's funny, sure -- and it also looks like it really hurts. In the film's showdown climax, the troops besiege Alan, Christy and their parents, "Home Alone"-style, in Alan's house. While Christy's craven technophile dad (the late Phil Hartman, in his last role) tries to surrender, Alan's can-do mom(Ann Magnuson) wields a tennis racket to return the serves of incoming projectiles -- but the intrepid little troopers keep closing in.

Still, the battle is limited to a single home, the showdown confined to a telephone pole on the suburban street outside. The director of "Small Soldiers," Joe Dante, understands that it'd be counterproductive to push this film's little meanies beyond their means -- to have them take over a whole town, like the critters that infested his 1984 "Gremlins," the previous high point of his career. The pleasure here lies not in mass destruction but in close encounters with menacing mundanities: toasters transformed into flamethrowers, cheese-graters repurposed as vehicular armor. (If you find a garbage disposal creepy, think how it looks when you're 12 inches high.) In one of the film's high points, the soldier leader, Chip Hazard (voice by Tommy Lee Jones), commandeers a roomful of "Gwendy" dolls as reinforcements. Once he's done reprogramming them, Frankenstein-style, they become a platoon of monster hellions who charge their prey while spouting "Talk To Me Barbie" lines like "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful!" and "All my makeup is cruelty free!"

The commandos go way beyond the call of duty: They're dirty-tricks specialists who can tap phones and take hostages, and though they don't have much individual personality, these flat-tops share a grim resourcefulness that'd be scary if they weren't such midgets. "Small Soldiers" is transparent and glib in its determination to paint the military mind-set as vicious and unhealthy; by contrast, the cowardly but free-spirited Gorgonites -- who simply long for their homeland, somewhere beyond the open window -- are skittering saints. But the film views the military, like everything else, through a screen of movie-history references: Chip Hazard chews out his men in front of an American flag ` la "Patton"; many of the commandos' voices are drawn from the cast of "The Dirty Dozen." The Gorgonites, instead, are spoken for by "Saturday Night Live" and "Spinal Tap" veterans Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. This isn't a conflict between war and peace or good and evil; it's simply a pop-culture duel.

That's just fine for a modest movie like "Small Soldiers," where the filmmakers' challenges are primarily technical, anyway: How do you seamlessly merge the live-action "animatronics" and computer-generated images used to depict the animated toys? How do you make the soldiers' moves look real -- but like those of real toys, not real soldiers?

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"Small Soldiers" gets you to forget about the technology behind the screen, and that's a small triumph, here as it was in "Toy Story." But the technology's there, all right, and it keeps getting more powerful. Alan's dad (Kevin Dunn) runs a frumpy old-fashioned toy store, "The Inner Child," and refuses to stock war toys; when he finally learns why the commandos have a life of their own, he cries, "What kind of moron would put military technology in toys?"

It's a big laugh line -- but by that yardstick we're all morons. Technologies originally designed for the military power the computers that make films like "Small Soldiers," and all their toy tie-ins, possible. Today, the transition from the military-industrial complex to the technology-entertainment complex is well under way, and it's not just the special effects that are seamless; the whole continuum from military-grade hardware to video-game software is one big blur.

"Small Soldiers" has some smart fun at the expense of this situation -- but it's hard to be worried for too long about our willingness to find
peaceful civilian uses for military sponsored technology. After all, if we weren't so adept at such creative repurposing, you'd never be reading this review on the Internet in the first place.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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