In addition to the having the distinction of featuring the latePhil Hartman's last role, "Small Soldiers" also marks the return of director Joe Dante to feature films. Dante made quite a name for himself in the Eighties with his numerous Steven Spielberg-backed forays into the 'strange happenings in suburbia' genre. These formula-driven family fare offerings typically had the same elements: a suburban setting, a boy that nobody takes seriously, a love interest who only dates older guys, and a brush with a magical phenomenon that gives the boy an opportunity to be taken seriously by everyone, and most importantly, the love interest. Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg's production house before the rise of Dreamworks SKG, churned out many of these types of films, with many of them directed by Joe Dante, including "Gremlins", "Gremlins 2", "Explorers" and "The 'Burbs'". After six-year absence from feature films, Dante returns with more of the same stuff he concocted ten years ago.
Jay Mohr ("Jerry Maguire") and David Cross, two toy designers, come up with two lines of action figures to appease the President of Globotech Industries (Denis Leary), who has just bought the toy company that they work for. However, these action figures, called the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites, are not your average pieces of molded plastic-- they can walk, talk, and kick ass, thanks to a computer chip developed by Globotech's munitions division. The Commando Elite, led by Chip Hazard (voice supplied by Tommy Lee Jones of "U.S. Marshals"), are programmed to seek out and destroy their mortal enemies, the Gorgonites. On the other hand, the Gorgonites, led by Archer (voice supplied by Frank Langella), are programmed to be defeated by the Commando Elite. However, the lethal capabilities of these action figures are grossly underestimated and they are sent to toy stores all across the country.
One set of these war toys winds up in the hands of young teen Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), who buys them from the Globotech delivery man (Dick Miller, who regularly appears in all of Dante's films and television work) in a bid to make some money for his father's ailing toy store. True to the formula, Alan is a boy that no one, not even his parents, takes seriously, unable to live down some run-ins with the law when he was younger. He is also in love with Christy (Kirsten Dunst, who played the 'Albanian girl' in "Wag the Dog"), his comely yet inaccessible next door neighbor. Of course, it is not long after breaking open the shrink wrap that Alan discovers that these action figures are no ordinary toys. As the battle between the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites erupts in suburbia, unleashing all sorts of mayhem in its wake, Alan and Christy must find a way to end it before someone loses an eye.
"Small Soldiers", like the other film it opened up with this week, "Lethal Weapon 4", was rushed into production without a completed script-- and it shows. Despite a somewhat interesting premise and extensive use of computer animation to bring the hi-tech toys to life, "Small Soldiers" is sabotaged by its unimaginative re-hash of what has been done to death in the past fifteen years, a problem that also plagued last year's "Warriors of Virtue". If you've seen "Gremlins" or "E.T.", then "Small Soldiers" offers nothing new, just more of the same fill-in-the-blanks boy-meets-girl-and-finds-vindication, including those cloying and annoying attempts at sentimentality. Ten years ago, "Small Soldiers" may have been interesting, but we've been there and already done that.
"Small Soldiers" doesn't have very much going for it, and even the voice talent of Tommy Lee Jones can't save it. It is severely lacking in the 'cutes' department, limiting its appeal to the younger set. The pop culture-based referential humor that peppers the dialogue not only elicits groans from grown-ups, but will most likely be over the heads of younger audiences. Relying on only its good looks and numerous explosions, "Small Soldiers" is a chore to watch.