Small Soldiers, 1998. Directed by Joe Dante. Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Langella, Ann Magnuson, Wendy Schaal

Although this engaging Dreamworks fantasy is obviously conceived as a cash-in on Disney's Toy Story, this is clearly Director Joe Dante's movie from the get-go. Dante has revealed himself as an auteur of sorts since Steven Spielberg took him out of the B-movie ghetto into the big time. The major thrust of his work has been to assault bourgoisie middle class with a mean-spirited anarchy that is both energizing and revelatory, showing suburbia as the vapid wasteland that it is. Dante clearly sides with the freaks in Gremlins and Innerspace and Matinee, but the demands of big budget filmmaking have constrained him. Normality is always restored. Here, Dante finds a way to have it both ways through the expedient of having two different sets of freaks at odds with each other.

The Small Soldiers of the title are the Commando Elite, a meaner version of GI Joe that are walking talking incarnations of every bad thing liberals think of when they think of war toys. They have been programmed to wipe out the Gorgonites, who have been programmed by one of those self-same liberals to cherish knowledge and kindness in spite of being freaks. Not content with this premise, Dante layers on the in-jokes. The Commando Elite are led by Major Chip Hazzard, voiced by Tommy Lee Jones; the rest of the commandos are voiced by members of the Dirty Dozen (Ernest Borgnine, Bruce Dern, Clint Walker, and Jim Brown­Lee Marvin, being dead, gets bumped for Jones). The Gorgonites are led by Archer, voiced by Frank Langella; the rest of them are not only voiced by the members of Spinal Tap (Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest), but are given the personalities and voices of classic horror movie characters­one Hunchback-esque shouts "Sanctuary, Sanctuary," in proper Charles Laughton fashion, for instance. Of course, the Gorgonites aren't the only ones tipping the hand Dante is playing. The transformation of the Gwendies (Barbie clones) into Commando Elite reinforcements, for instance, is played out against Franz Waxman's theme for the Bride of Frankenstein. Beyond this, the movie is a technical marvel, taking Toy Story one step further and presenting the toys AS toys, with the limitations of toys. It is a film with the sort of dazzling special effects technique that paralyzes disbelief and seems poised on the border of the miraculous.

That all of this is aimed at kids is provoking some debate about the violence on hand here. This IS a mean-spirited movie, but anyone who condemns this as inappropriate for youngsters has forgotten what it is like to be a kid. Kids like mean humor. They also like imagination. They even have an appetite for the grotesque. If you don't believe this, put your kids in a room with a couple of Raggedy Ann books and a couple of books with realistic paintings of dinosaurs or mythological monsters and see which of those books gets the most use. I guaranee that it won't be poor Raggedy Ann. And let's be honest: the war toys are the BAD GUYS, fer chrissake! This movie celebrates imagination and kindness (after many toys are massacred, to be sure, but what the hey). Give your kids some credit, huh? They are smart enough to get the message, even if the real message is buried deeply in the auteurist impulses of the director (but even that's a good thing­maybe the kids who see this movie won't turn into the middle-American mediocrities Small Soldiers and Gremlins and Matinee and The Burbs all lampoon so mercilessly). We don't need to protect anyone from this, so lighten up.















*Oddly enough, 1998 saw TWO movies about killer dolls in which the music from The Bride of Frankenstein was used. The other was Ronny Yu's derangedBride of Chucky. Back