On the small screen, Joe Dante’s antic Small Soldiers plays like Saturday-morning TV run amok as a squad of high-tech commando action figures break out of their boxes and declare war on some kinder, gentler monster toys. It’s a dazzling display of computer-generated magic, as these super-sophisticated G.I. Joes wreak havoc on a typical suburban neighborhood. But even with the help of a human cast including Denis Leary and the late Phil Hartman in his last screen performance, Dante doesn’t make it add up to much. Maybe that’s because he can’t decide if he’s ripping off Toy Story or his own Gremlins. What he’s come up with is a little, but not enough, of each. Marketed as a kid flick, Soldiers initially fascinates with its walking, talking, fighting figurines. Yet it never taps into Toy Story‘s Pinocchio-like essence: that wistfully whimsical notion that, you know, toys are us. Despite colorful voice work by Tommy Lee Jones as top commando Chip Hazard and Frank Langella as the leonine monster leader, these lifelike action figures never come alive like cowboy Woody or Buzz Lightyear. Nor does the movie’s PG-13 violence pay off in older-kid appeal. Though it builds to a slam-bang finale, with army men getting burned up, blown up, and chopped up by a lawn mower, Soldiers misses the anarchic spirit that made Gremlins such a devilish delight.
What Soldiers shares with Gremlins is a penchant for pop-culture in-jokes, designed to amuse the movie audience it never really reached: adults. Indeed, you almost have to be over 21 to catch all of Dante’s sardonic digs at war toys, war movies, and war itself. ”I love the smell of polyurethane in the morning,” crows Jones’ Hazard, who also does a fair impression of George C. Scott’s General Patton.
But just because this movie would have been easy to sit through at a matinee with the kids doesn’t mean you should run out and rent it to see what you missed. Sure, it’s a hoot while Hazard’s around. But whenever he’s off screen, Small Soldiers is strictly kid stuff — without a clue which kids it really wants to please. C+