The notion of technology running amok fuels “Small Soldiers.” When children’s action toys, implanted with faulty military microchips, begin to move, speak and learn, they turn on their human owners with a lethal vengeance. It’s an adult’s paranoid dream come to life, so setting it in a juvenile context may have inadvertently undone the foundation of the story. And while pic’s sense of a toy store turned upside down, courtesy of dazzling f/x, will draw young viewers, ultimately the film’s mean-spiritedness and serious underpinnings will turn off its core audience. The result will be rapid commercial erosion and disappointing theatrical box office; ancillary movement, particularly on video, could provide the pic with a more vital afterlife.
In the workshop of a toy company, its two top developers are trying to second-guess the whims of Globotech — the former defense industry conglomerate that’s acquired the company as part of its transition to peacetime industrialization.
Company chairman Gil Mars (Denis Leary) gives the OK to proceed with a group of action toys called the Commando Elite, and decides another line — the exotic, nonhuman Gorgonites — should serve as their nemesis. Stipulating that the action figures function in the lifelike manner of their promo reel, Mars offers up his arsenal of techno wizardry to ensure this is accomplished in record time.
A short time later, in the idyllic Winslow Corners, Ohio, teenager Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) spots the new line in the back of a delivery truck with other wares for his father’s toy shop. He convinces the driver to give him a set, anticipating fast sales while his father is away on business. With Gorgonite leader Archer (voiced by Frank Langella) tucked away in Alan’s duffel bag, Commando leader Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones) rips through his package and musters his malevolent squad to the task of destroying the “enemy,” which involves not only ransacking the store but raiding the Abernathy home.
Somewhere hidden in the script by Gavin Scott, Adam Rifkin, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio is a pacifist lament, a plea for tolerance and a rant against big business that cares only about the balance sheet. The story extols the virtues of a bygone era and, reminiscent of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” sets the action in a town that’s too good to be true.
In a vain effort to contemporize the yarn, scripters make Alan a troubled child. His sins: He wrote graffiti on the wall of his school and pulled the fire alarm.
Despite good intentions, “Small Soldiers” is a muddle of violence and sermonizing that doesn’t achieve its intended comic edge. When the lethal toys go into action, any “message” evaporates, and all one can do is marvel at the technology that has brought them to life — and be dumbstruck by the onscreen carnage.
Technically, “Small Soldiers” is a testament to special effects. The combination of animatronics and computer-generated images is a marked advance on such past achievements as Chuckie of “Child’s Play” and the soldiers of “Toy Story.”
But the film never finds the right tone, which is mystifying considering director Joe Dante’s acumen with comedy and action, particularly in the similarly themed “Gremlins.”
Pic misfires on other levels, apart from its skewered premise. From its opening setup, one feels that the filmmakers are taking too long to explain why things are running afoul; soon, the audience is anticipating the obvious long before it occurs.
Matters aren’t helped by a cast that largely seems adrift among the conflicting moods. Smith lacks the edge or charisma one associates with a wild child, and casting the considerably taller Kirsten Dunst as his budding girlfriend diminishes him further.
The adult roles are largely one-dimensional, with Kevin Dunn, as Smith’s father, getting the worst of it as a man unbowed by sensitivity training. Phil Hartman — in his last screen role — has a nice, if familiar, turn as a small-town dad. Following the end credits, the filmmakers have inserted a fond outtake of the performer.