Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: Small Soldiers (1998)

Small Soldiers (1998)

When you were a kid, did you ever wish that your G.I. Joe action figures could come to life and fight for real? This movie by Joe Dante, the maker of films like Gremlins, The Howling, and The 'Burbs, shows why that might not be so awesome. Small Soldiers' criticism and satire of "war toys" (nowadays, replace the action figures with Modern Warfare) could've gone deeper, and never really amounts to much beyond an excuse to have action figures come to life and fight in the backyards of suburban America, but this is still an entertaining action-comedy for kids and their parents alike, with some hilariously warped gags mixed with shout-outs to classic war movies and legitimately engaging action (even if the CG wasn't all there).

The plot here is that the Heartland Toy Company has been bought by Globotech, a defense contractor looking to diversify its business now that the Cold War is over, and the new executives stumble upon what seems like a brilliant idea: integrate Globotech's artificial intelligence research into a pair of new lines of action figures, the Commando Elite (all-American soldiers in the mold of G.I. Joe) and the Gorgonites (originally designed as educational toys, later retooled as the Commandos' alien enemies). Some of the first batch of action figures falls into the hands of Alan, the son of a toy store owner with a strict "no war toys" policy. With his parents away on business, Alan takes the hot new toys and hopes to sell them quickly enough to leave the store with a tidy profit and Dad none the wiser. Things predictably go wrong, and soon, the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites have trashed the store and brought their fight to Alan's house.

Given the amount of satirical bite devoted to the subject of "war toys" in the first act, I can't help but feel that the plot kind of lost its way afterwards. Around the second act, the film turns into a fairly normal "defend this house" movie, with Alan, his friend Christy (Kirsten Dunst), her family (including Phil Hartman in his last film role), the Gorgonites, and a pair of Globotech guys doing damage control under siege by the Commando Elite. It's still a fun time, but it felt kind of empty. Part of this, I feel, has to do with the fact that this film was made some time before actual "war toys" that could think and fight existed in real life -- in the form of military shooters on Xbox and PlayStation. Online multiplayer was still the realm of computer nerds at the time; the writers had to come up with ideas out of thin air, many of which failed to pan out in the coming years. This age of Call of Duty gives me plenty of thoughts about how this movie could be remade with a sharper satirical edge. Maybe a neighbor kid, well-meaning but still a kid, with a whole collection of Commando Elite action figures gets roped into Chip's war with the Gorgonites and their human allies, falling under Chip's sway. His toys tell him that the "Gorgonite-loving scum" is evil, dehumanizing Alan and making this kid into an enemy of his. Before long, the enemy kid is threatening Alan (and his mom) with the kinds of threats you hear during a particularly heated match on Nuketown.

But alas, while this film kind of loses its way plot-wise, it still makes up for it with both action and laughs. The scheming of the Commando Elite is often hysterical in the way it parodies war movies of decades past, with one of the funniest scenes being when Chip gives a speech to his fellow plastic men that is composed entirely of mangled quotes from other movies and various military leaders. The action and the special effects (done with the involvement of the great Stan Winston) looked great, even if it was clear where they switched between practical and CG effects to model the action figures. There were even a few moments that were downright freakish, most notably the scene with the "Gwendy" dolls (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci) that may give some of the little ones nightmares. This is more a movie aimed, like Gremlins, at somewhat older adolescent boys, the kind who would nowadays be watching Disney XD.

Score: 3 out of 5

It loses its satirical edge around the second act, a consequence of failing to predict how toys like the ones it features would actually look and act. That said, it's still a fun little action-comedy that parents and their kids can both enjoy. It's on Netflix, so go check it out.

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