Friday, March 8, 2013

Small Soldiers Movie Review

I remember when Small Soldiers (1998) hit theaters. There was a big marketing campaign that featured Burger King promos, toys, video games and a lot of TV spots targeted towards kids. Even though I was in my mid-teens I still remember thinking Small Soldiers was too violent and scary for the targeted audience the marketing campaign was focusing on.
15-year-old Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), the son of a toy store owner, tries out the new action figures: The Commando Elite vs. The Gorgonites. Three months earlier, a toy company believed it is onto something when it employs the latest government military technology in a series of action figures, enabling them to talk. The company underestimated the power of the special microchips they've employed, however, as the two opposing sides of the toy line start thinking for themselves, they engaging in real combat. The Commando Elite, lead by Major Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones), vow to wipe out the Gorgonites in a suburban neighborhood. Alan and his neighbor Christy (Kirsten Dunst), on whom he has a massive crush, must protect his home and family from the militaristic action figure Commandos with the help of the kind Gorgonites
I have to admit, Small Soldiers was a fun idea, but not an easy thing to pull off. It's a violent movie. People's clothes are set on fire, they are cut with steak knives, and houses are trashed. It almost sounds like something out of a Chucky movie. But at the same time it tries to be goofy and fun to appeal to kids. Most of the real violence happens to the toys, but at the same time they are presented as individuals who can think for themselves; there are believable heroes and villains among the toy characters. It's rated PG-13, but if the same sorts of violent actions were taken against actual people, this would have had a solid R rating. I still think this could be a terrifying experience for kids to watch Small Soldiers.
The special effects are actually very well done. The action figures are animated with a blend of CGI animation and animatronics puppetry; sometimes it's hard to tell which is which. These effects were incorporated seamlessly into the live action scenes and made the toy characters seem all the more realistic. Furthermore, there was a lot practical effects. There were real pyrotechnics which brought us some pretty nice explosions and fireballs. The Commando characters were building weapons and vehicles out of common household items. Some looked as though they might work, while others seemed a bit too exaggerated to be realistic. It was very creative, and since it was physically made (not CGI stuff) it looked more believable.
This movie had a lot of potential to say something about violent imagery in children's products, especially that in toys meant for boys. The toy shop Alan's father owns is a classical toy shop; no war toys. It has trouble competing with toy stores that sell toy guns and such. So, the set up is there. Then the Commandos start wreaking havoc in a way that most boys have probably played out in their minds, but there are real consequences to playing war in Small Soldiers. The movie sets up a means of making a statement, but then doesn't do it.
Small Soldier is a satire of several war movies. You've got this kind of Toy Story concept along with the "playing war" concept in the Toys movie and a little bit of Gremlins, what with the tiny killers that seem to multiply like crazy. There's also a lot of funny war movie references. Early on Major Chip Hazard is rallying his fellow toy troops for battle while standing in front of a jigsaw puzzle of the American flag, a reference to the opening scene in Patton. Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries was played during a scene when the Commandos were attacking with makeshift helicopters, a nod to Apocalypse Now. It's the kind of movie that is a little bit funnier because of movies you've already seen.
Small Soldiers isn't an awful movie, but I can't recommend rushing out to see it. It's a bit hard to take seriously, has logical errors in the story, and is an overly violent movie for its target audience. The pacing is very slow; the story and action doesn't really get going until after the movie is half over. I remember my Dad rented Small Soldiers soon after it hit VHS, and we were all giving him dirty looks for getting such a dumb movie. Fortunately for him it started getting good and he redeemed himself. Small Soldiers is currently on Instant Play on NetFlix, and frankly that's the only thing that makes it worth seeing; it's kind of fun but not worth the cost to rent.

Do you have a favorite war movie? Or even a satirical war movie? Comment below and tell me all about it!

1 comment:

  1. Parts of your review were lifted directly from the Roger Ebert review. Pretty crappy of you.

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