Small Soldiers (review)

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Small Toys, Big Bore

[Enter snide David Spade mode.]
I liked this movie the first time around, when it was called Gremlins.
[Exit snide David Spade mode.]

I went into Small Soldiers without knowing much about the movie — which is unusual for me; usually I’ve read a couple reviews and an interview or two with cast or crew. So I didn’t discover until I went to MovieLink to buy tickets that Small Soldiers was directed by Joe Dante, whose movies like Gremlins and Innerspace and Matinee I’ve gotten a kick out of. (I’d forgotten at the time what a mixed bag he’s produced: let’s not talk about Gremlins 2 or Explorers.)

Joe Dante also obviously got a kick out of Gremlins, because he just shoved it in a Xerox machine and ran off Small Soldiers.
The whole thing reeks of, say, 1985. And not in a good way (the soundtrack is laden with Pat Benatar songs, for Pete’s sake). The film opens with an oh-so-Reagan-era comedic paean to corporate greed and stupidity — an ass-kissing middle management type (Jay Mohr) out to impress his new boss (Denis Leary, in full slimeball mode) puts an experimental military computer chip in a line of action figures. (Oh yeah, military = bad too.) And comedy and mayhem ensue.

Fortunately, it’s morning in America, and our small towns are full of misunderstood young adolescent boys ready to save the world. Cut to Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), pedaling along on his expensive bicycle through the greensward of the town square on a beautiful, sunny, perfect afternoon, the pleasant townsfolk zipping by in their American cars at 15 MPH. (Note to Joe Dante: Even Spielberg isn’t doing anything this Spielberg anymore.)

Alan’s Dad’s homey and pleasant little toy store off the town square isn’t doing so well these days, thanks to the Mega-Lo-Mart or whatever it’s called out by the highway. (Yawn. A good point in 1985, maybe, but Wal-Mart’s subjugation of the planet is now inevitable.) So Alan — parking the expensive bicycle outside the store, yikes, sans chain or The Club or anything — takes it on himself to buy a few of those new action figures from the delivery guy, even though Dad doesn’t like war toys.

If you’ve seen Gremlins, you know exactly what happens next. The toys get loose, wreak havoc, and trash our little piece of middle America. The adults, who should all know better, ignore obvious warning signs until it’s too late, at which time they all mostly run around like a bunch of morons. But never fear — their perfect children will take care of everything, aided, natch, by some nice and cute and not-at-all-threatening toys. Guess who prevails.

The biggest crime here is that Small Soldiers is so boring when such a wonderful cast is squandered. Ann Magnuson as Alan’s mother? Has one cool moment. Denis Leary? Doing a caricature of himself. David Cross, who, with Bob Odenkirk and their Mr. Show, is carrying on the Monty Python tradition? Might as well not be here. Tommy Lee Jones and Frank Langella as the voices of two of the toys? Here — especially Jones — for marquee value only.

And Phil Hartman. As one of the neighborhood dunderhead adults, he’s hard to watch onscreen, knowing that he’s gone and that Small Soldiers is always going to be known as his last piece of work. What a waste of his talent and the little time he had left.

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