Give Joe Dante credit for not giving up. The world has moved on since he first started spoofing and recycling (Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins). His name is no longer so casually dropped among moviegoers, and it's been years since he (or anyone else) was thought of as the next Steven Spielberg. But here he is, still playing with toys in Small Soldiers, still staging mayhem like a clockwork ballet, still quoting other movies past, great, and small.
Time has caught up with Dante to some extent, because many grown men are playing with toys these days. You can see them lurking around the Hot Wheels racks, and they've bid the trading card market over the top. The toys are getting cooler, too, but never so cool as in Small Soldiers.
Dante parts company with the guys down the block because his toys talk back. They also learn and use tools and, while they don't have opposable thumbs, they are evolutionary--and deadly. They're G.I. Joe clones, the "Commando Elite," with a military computer chip inside; the chip programs these gruff, Dirty Dozen-type figures to kill the alien, unarmed, and innocently stupid Gorgonites, a companion action set.
And because the Gorgonites end up in an average American home, that home becomes an "enemy stronghold."
Dante and his screenwriters (five, officially) link this sandbox scenario--drawn from the venerable toy-shop-comes-to-life mystique of ancient cartoons--to some basic but vital cultural polarities. Alan (Gregory Smith), the foolish young hero who innocently lets the Commandos out of the bag, is not just the Sorcerer's Apprentice but a teen who needs to discover girls and to prove himself. His parents (Kevin Dunn, Ann Magnuson) are not just granola-eating, VW-driving toy-shop owners who've never sold a war toy, but neighbors to a technology-worshiping, boorish, alcohol-drinking couple (Phil Hartman, Wendy Schaal) whose daughter Kristy (Kirsten Dunst) could be Alan's new squeeze. As for the toys themselves, well, we haven't seen such a mismatch of ideology and firepower since the Ewoks swung logs at Darth Vader's stormtroopers.
Small Soldiers is "high concept" to the max, and a perfect lead-in to ancillary products. But because Kristy survives a hellish mutated-Barbie attack, and because Alan's mom uses her tennis form to lob the Commandos' fireballs back out the window, and because Alan himself braves high voltage and his own flawed self-esteem to save the neighborhood from killer toys, there's some potentially powerful stuff here, especially for young viewers.
The action is funny but also furious and, for a comedy, the message about loving mock violence too much has real resonance. (Small Soldiers was made long before real kids Alan's age starting shooting at other kids this spring, but Dante did edit out some gun-based mayhem that was too spooky for comfort.)
Nevertheless, Dante's heart is with the toys. His budget has bought both puppets and digital creations that can climb around a bike while it's tooling along, or rig some power tools into weaponry in record time. (Creative adaptation is the gimmick here--a toaster as a cannon!) Oddly enough, Dante shoots himself in his own impish foot with some glaring plot irregularities. The kindly Gorgonite leader (voice of Frank Langella) explains that he can't feel the wind, yet a few moments later another figure says "Ouch" when a partner rides over his foot. And as the attacks begin, the humans make it clear they could easily pick up one of these playthings and just stomp on it, yet they cower like idiots so they can fit the needs of the plot--which involve showing humans in peril. But, for better and for worse, Dante's energy and editing (his love of action for action's sake, so obvious and so frustrating in Gremlins) makes everything whiz by like a twister in a Kmart.
Dante remains a legitimate inheritor to Spielberg--particularly if you're thinking of the Spielberg who brought us 1941 in 1979. That in itself is no major flaw, though, and Dante has a good sense of wit that has always helped him. Here, he offers way-cool voices for his toys: the Spinal Tap trio as Gorgonites, several Dirty Dozen stars as Commandos, and girls-of-the-moment Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar as the killer Gwendy dolls. But much that is either funny or more genuinely scary here is simply brushed aside in the name of pure speed. In the end, Dante implicitly acknowledges his interests and his own recycled limitations: Boys will be boys, but not forever. And when the boy stuff has to go away, isn't it cool to see it leave in a gust of blinding magic? Joe Dante is a nostalgist, still perfecting the ultimate campfire story.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.