Leon Worden

'Small Soldiers' a small victory for DreamWorks

By Leon Worden
Friday, July 10, 1998

f movies about plastic action figures that come to life and kill each other aren't generally your bag, you'll be pleasantly surprised with "Small Soldiers," the new DreamWorks release opening today at the Mann 10 in Valencia.

It may be an unabashed rip-off of Disney's highly successful "Toy Story," but so what? There's plenty of action to keep it entertaining, witty spoofs and techno-silliness to make it funny, and even a few meaningful sub-plots to give it some redeeming social value.

Besides, the folks from DreamWorks and Industrial Light and Magic have reputations to live up to. (It's also comedian Phil Hartman's last film.)

The toys are back in town, this time with a real attitude. Imagine stepping on one of those puppies in your bare feet when you get up to go to the bathroom.

Globotech is a mega-conglomerate with its fingers in everything from military ordnance to beer and, now, toys. Its cold-hearted president (Denis Leary) wants to market a toy that, "when a kid plays with it, it plays back."

The toy designers are a pair of computer nerds from newly-acquired Heartland Toys. They develop a line of half-good, half-evil action figures that need a microchip to make them walk, talk and annihilate each other. Only instead of any run-of-the-mill microchip, the designers install defective microchips from Globotech's military division into a half-million of their plastic creations.

Scheduled for release at toy stores everywhere on a Monday, a dozen figures fall off the turnip truck a couple of days early and into the lap of 15-year-old Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), who is left in charge of his father's small-town Ohio toy store while Dad is away on a trip.

Night comes and the toys break out of their boxes. The Commando Elite carry out their seek-and-destroy mission against the Gorgonites, a rag-tag bunch of misfit monsters that are computer-programmed to lose.

Thanks to their super-duper microchip, the toys actually learn as they go along.

The Gorgonites enlist Abernathy's aid in battle, and all hell breaks loose when the commandoes take a page from "Bride of Frankenstein" and bring the Barbie (or, "Gwendy") doll collection of Abernathy's love interest, Christy (Kirsten Dunst), to life. With power tools and household appliances fashioned into bazookas and flamethrowers, the commandoes attack the Gorgonites and their human sympathizers with equal abandon.

That's the basic story, but it's the sub-plots that make the movie interesting.

Alan Abernathy is a problem teen-ager with a history of getting kicked out of school, and nobody, particularly his father (Kevin Dunn), trusts him to do anything right. Given his diminutive frame, his chances aren't too good with the cheerleader Christy, either.

Just as the underdog Gorgonites must overcome their programming if they are to win, so must Abernathy overcome the expectation that he will fail.

The Gorgonite leader, "Archer" (voice by Frank Langella) and the Commando Elite's Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones) square off in "Small Soldiers."

The boy and the monsters teach each other that "Just because you can't see it" — meaning Abernathy's abilities and the Gorgonites' quest for their homeland — "doesn't mean it isn't there."

Abernathy's opportunity to prove his worthiness, not only to his father and Christy but to himself, comes when he takes the bull by the horns in a life-threatening situation.

It might not be deep enough to be a true coming-of-age story, but the elements are there.

The individual personalities of the foot-tall animatronic action figures (by Stan Winston) are well-defined, and you easily sympathize with the Gorgonite leader, "Archer," whose calm, measured voice (by Frank Langella) and sagely advice strongly resemble those of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Not to be downplayed is the comedy. Your kids might not fully appreciate the spoof on "Apocalypse Now," complete with helicopter, "Ride of the Valkyrie" and bon mots like "I love the smell of polyurethane in the morning," but there's plenty they will get, like the reaction of commando leader Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones) to the death of a comrade: "Nick Nitro's battery has run out, but his memory will keep going and going and going ..."

Even if you don't see it in the theater yourself, be assured you can send your young teenagers to this PG-13 film knowing that it really isn't meant to turn their brains to mush.

Critic's rating: B+

    Leon Worden is The Signal's special sections editor.

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