Movie News & Reviews

Big Awful Friday: 'Small Soldiers' could've been dream come true

You know what's not fair?

If a kid tries to buy an ice cream cone with Monopoly money, he gets a chuckle.

But when I, a grown man, try to buy a flatscreen with a bad check, I get thrown in jail. That's the Democrats' America for you.

Then again, maybe that kid thinks he's got real money. I used to believe my piles of rocks and leaves were Transformers. When we're young, toys can almost seem to come alive. In 1998's Small Soldiers, they do.

Teen toy store employee Gregory Smith has a new line of soldiers on the shelves. When he accidentally brings home the leader of the toy aliens (voiced by Frank Langella), Smith learns they can think, talk, and learn -- and that the commando captain of the "good" guys (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) is maniacally obsessed with destroying his new friends.

Small Soldiers supporting cast is an All-Star team. With Phil Hartman and David Cross, and ringers like Ernest Borgnine, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer doing voicework, it would take an evil miracle for the movie not to be funny. It could be 93 minutes of puppies being euthanized and still get laughs.

The four-man writing squad provides them with nice lines too. A deliveryman grouses "Pretty soon, everything in the world is going to be owned by one giant corporation. Then it's goodbye, microbreweries!" While watching TV, suburban dad Hartman muses, "I think World War II was my favorite war."

Yet there's something missing.

Or maybe there's too much of the wrong stuff, including a subplot where Smith tries to win Kirsten Dunst away from her cool boyfriend that's so old you can read complaints about it on the walls of French caves. It's a momentum-dragger that reeks of studio interference or plotting by committee.

When you've got a bunch of tiny madmen wielding lethal weapons, focusing on the non-love between two teens is like buying a jetpack so you can play with the cardboard box.

You know what relationship would have been much more interesting to develop? The one they have here, between Smith and his 6-inch buddy. That's not a euphemism.

At least it's helmed by Joe Dante, director of Gremlins and Piranha, meaning it's all zammed up with playful anarchy, scattershot satire, and impish goofiness.

No doubt, it's a fun time. It's just a little blander and broader than it could have been.

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com

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