Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 20, 2021)
Best-known for 1984’s classic Gremlins, director Joe Dante mined somewhat similar tale via 1998’s Small Soldiers. Here we find another story of small beings run amok.
When defense conglomerate GloboTech acquires the Heartland Toy Company, CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary) depends technologically advanced playthings. He greenlights action figures that can “play back”, and faced with demanding deadlines, the designers cut corners.
This means an advanced weaponry chip winds up in the toys. When teen Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) gets the chance to try them out, he learns they don’t understand they’re toys, and mayhem results.
I saw Small Soldiers theatrically and found it to be a completely underwhelming experience. It was one of those movies that you watch and find mildly entertaining but then forget about three minutes after it ends.
On home video, I encountered a similar experience. To be sure, Small Soldiers is not a bad movies, but it suffers from some bland acting and a serious case of déjà vu.
The latter problem stems from the fact that director Joe Dante already made this movie 14 years earlier when he did Gremlins. He also redid that film in 1990 as the sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Small Soldiers really just covers the same territory as those two movies, albeit with a different cast of characters.
Dante continues to show a flair for the creative mayhem on display in the two Gremlins films. The first movie was at its best when the title characters wreaked havoc.
That's why the sequel almost completely dispensed with any semblance of a plot and just let the Gremmies go at it. While the first film required a fairly lengthy setup period, for Batch the nature of the beasts was already established so the movie could indulge solely in the fun stuff.
Unfortunately, Small Soldiers can't use the same cinematic shorthand, so the audience has to sit through another protracted setup. Somehow it seems longer here than in Gremlins, largely because of the cast.
Dante used the same formula for the actors here as he did in the original Gremlins: bland young leading actor, cute but also fairly bland leading actress, and very capable character actors to fill out the rest of the roles.
Both films come burdened with almost impossibly dull lead actors. If anything, Smith's Alan seems even more lifeless and unengaging than did Zach Galligan's Billy Peltzer in Gremlins.
A lot of this may be due to the background of each character. While
Peltzer's supposed to be a dull small town boy, Alan's got a reputation as a troublemaker and a wise-ass, a kid who's been kicked out of a couple schools because of his mischief.
At no point in time do any of these characteristics seem evident in Smith's wimpy portrayal of Alan. I don't really fault the kid, but this was just bad casting.
Surely they could have found someone who could have played the role with a little spirit. I guess Dante likes to have ciphers as his leads.
Unfortunately the movie suffers from this choice. Since Smith has to carry so much of the film's exposition, the picture ends up with a lot of slow spots because of his character.
It probably didn't help that Alan's non-human cohort, "Gorgonite" Archer (voiced by Frank Langella) also seems pretty sedate and uninteresting himself. In Gremlins, Billy interacted with cute little "Mogwai" Gizmo, and that puppet added all the charm we needed to complement Galligan.
On the other hand, Archer acts as the quiet leader of the peaceful Gorgonites. “Quiet" and "peaceful" rarely add up to an interesting character.
Unfortunately, Archer must function as the foil to the villain of the piece, Major Chip Hazard of the "Commando Elite". Hazard's all ram-it-down-your-throat bombast, wittily voiced by Tommy Lee Jones.
Archer needs to be a contrast to him, which seems fine except for the fact that we end up stuck with the team of Archer and Alan for so much of the movie’s first half. Their combined lack of charisma really makes the picture drag.
Both Kirsten Dunst's Christy in Small Soldiers and Phoebe Cates' Kate in Gremlins serve the same purpose, as they offer burgeoning romance with our nominal heroes, and they give the leads someone to rescue. Though talented, Dunst adds little to the experience here.
Cates didn't do much better in Gremlins, but somehow she seemed to offer a bit more oomph to her role. Anyway, Dunst functions perfectly adequately in her part, but she can’t do more than that.
Gremlins took some fine character actors such as Dick Miller and Polly Holliday and put them to good use in their fun roles as quirky town residents. Dante tries to repeat that formula here but he simply ends up wasting talent.
The fact that Small Soldiers represents Phil Hartman's final screen appearance has been lamented sufficiently elsewhere, but it must be noted what a disappointing swan song it is. Hartman's just fine as technofascist Phil Frimple, but it's a small and undistinguished
role, as are all of the supporting characters.
In fact, he's the only one who stands out in any way. Unfortunately, others such as Kevin Dunn and Ann Magnuson get completely lost along the way.
As with Gremlins, the real stars of Small Soldiers are supposed to be the toys themselves, and for the most part, they do pretty well. The only time this film shows any signs of real life of creativity involve the toys, and even then, these parts only appear sporadically until the last third of the movie.
In a fun twist, Dante uses the original actors from The Dirty Dozen as most of the Commandos. Their presence adds a cool touch to the film.
For reasons unknown, Spinal Tap - Michael McKean,
Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer - get cast as the Gorgonites other than Archer. No complaints here but it simply doesn't have the same logic behind it as casting the actors from The Dirty Dozen.
No matter - all three are accomplished voice actors and they add to their small but entertaining roles.
I can't fault the special effects in the film. If anything, the great effects work on display helps make the film more palatable than it otherwise would have been.
The various toys integrate with their environments well, a crucial factor in the attempt to make the entire story believable. Maybe they should have made a computer-animated Alan, as a CG kid would have seemed more lifelike than Smith.
Really, Small Soldiers offers a semi-dull little movie until the real action starts during the final third of the picture. That's when the "war" among the humans and the Gorgonites versus the Commando Elite really takes off, and much of it's terrifically entertaining, echoing the best parts of Gremlins.
Only at this point does Small Soldiers display the level of creativity, wittiness, and ingenuity that we expected from it all along. It's good that the film ends on a high note, but it remains a shame that it takes it so long to get there.
In some ways Small Soldiers disappoints because of the burdens of its story. Basically, the film offers a terrific premise, and it's usually hard for movies to live up to such inventive ideas because they offer the audience so many opportunities to play "what if."
It's impossible to watch a film such as this and not conjure up your own "play opportunities", many of which would probably have been better than those in the actual picture. It's not a case of unrealized potential so much as it is a case of limitless potential, so much that it becomes much harder for the audience to feel satisfied with the scenarios that do appear.
Still, even with all its faults, Small Soldiers offers a decent amount of fun and entertainment. It sputters too much in its first two-thirds, but the end result brings decent material.
Footnote: a short memorial for Phil Hartman appears after the end credits.