Small Soldiers

Rating:

FORWARD MARCH

Main Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Gregory Smith

Director: Joe Dante

clown pixabay

A great start to my parade planning!

My meeting with that darling Steven Spielberg is set up for next week.  I know that I’ve got the part of Maria in his new film version of West Side Story in the bag.  Any audition, for want of a better word, is a mere formality.  I plan to wear the Bombalurina from my GlamourPuss gowns collection (haute couture based on the costumes from Cats) – the fuchsia one, not the teal – as it has just the right amount of bosom and a thigh high kick slit guaranteed to show off my best assets.  Steven is going to absolutely flip at the smoldering sex appeal I can still generate at my ever-youthful age of 39.  I know that in some conceptions of the piece, Maria is supposed to be some sort of virginal teen, but I am sure Steven will go along with the need for a more mature approach to the material for modern audiences.

In the meantime, I have another intriguing project.  Leah, my gal Friday, has been on the phone with some outfit in Washington DC that’s looking for expertise in parade planning.  Now while I must admit I’ve never designed a parade, I have had some experience as a professional event planner and do know how to stage a spectacle with a special sort of flair for a once in a lifetime experience.  Apparently, some sort of military theme is needed, and I do believe I know in which Fox warehouse all those lovely chartreuse navy uniforms from the dream ballet that was the highlight my famous motion picture, Nautical Marietta, are stored.   We just need to get them dry cleaned, altered to size and find some buff chorus boys and we’ll have quite the sight.  I’ll have Kim Dee and Mary Gee, my seamstresses, get on it right away.

I was busy sketching out ideas for some ICBMs on trucks with a bevy of lovely chorines draped over them in amusing poses when I realized that it had been some time since I had seen a military film, so I headed off to the home theater where the Netflix presented me with an assortment of titles.  My selection was Small Soldiers from 1998 as it looked like it might give me a quick refresher course in military tactics.  Besides which, it starred a young Kirsten Dunst, an actress of whom I have been quite fond since I had a brief cameo as her mother in Interview with the Vampire some years back. I poured myself a nice pumpkin spice vodka tonic, opened a fresh box of Girl Scout Samoas and settled back to enjoy myself.  The occasional explosion from Normy’s studio (he’s working on a symphonic piece for orchestra and artillery) simply added to the ambience.

Small Soldiers turns out to be one of those subversive family films from veteran director Joe Dante that is in many ways a retread of his minor classic Gremlins from 1984.  This time, instead of slimy little lizard creatures upsetting idyllic small-town family life, it’s a bunch of bionic GI Joes.  Our story starts out with the Heartland Toy Company having been bought out by Globo Tech Inc.  (Those names, like much else in the movie, have all the subtlety of a sledge hammer.)  Globo Tech is run by an obnoxious billionaire, Gil Mars (Dennis Leary playing an early variation of Elon Musk) who demands a new bestselling toy line.  Enter two toy company employees, the ambitious brown noser (Jay Mohr) and the dreamy creative type (David Cross).  They’ve come up with a line of war action figures, the Commando Elite who are to battle a group of otherworldly aliens, the Gorgonites.  Mars wants to see his new action figures actually capable of action so Jay Mohr decides to power them with excess military microprocessors.

Cut to small town America where young Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) works in his father’s (Kevin Dunn) toy store, a place of simple constructive wooden gifts, sort of like a Melissa and Doug display gone wild.  It’s not making money so, when a delivery driver (Dick Miller – playing roughly the same character he played in Gremlins) arranges for a set of Commando Elite and Gorgonites to fall off his truck so Alan can sell them and make a little money, Alan has early access to the line.  Christy (Kirstin Dunst), the girl of Alan’s pubescent dreams, comes into the store with her little brother (Jacob Smith) who falls in love with the action figures and wants some for his birthday.    Soon we learn that the microprocessors that allow the dolls to move and respond are working a little too well and that the Command Elite really can think and act as real soldiers and it doesn’t take long for them to break out of their packaging in search of the Gorgonites and to start creating an armory out of common household implements.  The Gorgonites, meanwhile, go into hiding and Alan and Christy become determined to help them escape to what they believe is their native planet which looks a lot like a stock photograph of the Yosemite Valley.  Soon war is declared with Alan and Christy’s house becoming to battleground between the two sides, sweeping up both families and the toy makers (who make a late reappearance once they realize that their creations might be a wee bit dangerous) into a major battle for control of the living room.  Who will win?  If you’ve ever seen Gremlins, you know more or less how it’s all going to turn out.

Small Soldiers is full of pizzazz and ends up being fairly entertaining, especially in the second half when battle is joined, and the Commando Elite become exceedingly resourceful with the contents of the garage and recruit reinforcements from Christy’s Gwendy dolls (think Barbie with fewer brains).  But it doesn’t have quite the consistency of tone that many of Dante’s other films have.  The film has four credited screenwriters (never a good sign) and feels like it went through a few too many studio committees and focus groups.  At times, it seems to be trying to be a subversive social commentary aimed at teens and adults, and then it swings into pure kiddie fare.  (Dante himself, in an interview, admits that many of the fight sequences were trimmed at studio insistence to make it more kid friendly but I don’t think that decision did the film any favors). It’s also not helped by some weak casting choices.  Gregory Smith, who ends up having to carry the film, is simply too bland in the central role.  A more able actor or magnetic screen presence would have helped immensely.  Kirstin Dunst, top billed, but in some ways more of a supporting player, does a bit better but isn’t given enough to do.  The film might have been better with the roles reversed.  The adults, a group of able farceurs, are all pretty decent but none of them has much screen time.

There are some quasi-brilliant touches, especially with the voice casting of the rogue toys.  The leader of the Commando Elite, Major Chip Hazard (there goes those sledgehammer names again), is voiced by Tommy Lee Jones in full martial mode and he acquits himself well.  His dirty dozen of side kicks are primarily voiced by actors who were part of the original The Dirty Dozen including George Kennedy, Jim Brown, and Ernest Borgnine.   The lead Gorgonite, Archer, who looks like a majestic bipedal puma, is given full gravitas by Frank Langella.  The rest of the Gorgonites, a rather motley crew of escapees from Dante’s segment of The Twilight Zone Movie, are voiced by the Spinal Tap guys including Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer.   The production design of the small soldiers and how they use their environment, is also spot on.  There’s also visual homages to a number of Hollywood classics, especially The Bride of Frankenstein.

All in all, it’s fun, but I’m not sure whom you would show Small Soldiers to.  It’s too intense for small children, and too juvenile for adults and older teens.   Maybe the next time you have a slumber party for twelve-year-olds, you can break it out.

Officious executive assistant.  Gratuitous Robert Picardo.  Symbolic toy Viking ship.  New uses for cheese graters.  Electric transformer destruction.  Neighborly tree squabbles.  Brilliant Bride of Frankenstein parody.  Douchey motor scooter riding boyfriend.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

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