Toys for thoughts

If you loved Don Rickles as the acid-tongued voice of Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story, wait till you get a load of Tommy Lee Jones' gung-ho warmonger, Major Chip Hazard, in Small Soldiers. In Joe Dante's uncommonly clever fantasy, Jones' "character" is a military action figure just 12 inches high, but he's seemingly fueled by enough testosterone for an entire army. Actually, Hazard's belligerence comes straight out of a weapons-grade microchip put inside him by mistake. But why quibble? When G.I. Joe goes berserk, tough is tough.

Conceived in chaos and rewritten more times than the federal budget, Small Soldiers could be one of the surprise hits of the summer. It trades on every child's fantasy of toys springing to life--nothing new for the movies--but Dante and a special-effects brigade led by Jurassic Park's Stan Winston have tweaked that idea beautifully. From the moment the prototypes of Hazard's Commando Elite Force (suggested retail price: $79.95 each) punch through their packaging and lay waste in the middle of the night to a small-town toy store, the kids at the multiplex will know they're in for something a little more exciting than another march of the wooden soldiers.

When Major Chip and his well-armed cohorts (Butch Meathook, Brick Bazooka, and Link Static, just for a start) declare war on their meek, misshapen, programmed-to-fail enemies, the Gorgonites (also 80 bucks a copy), there's something in it for us grownups: some witty commentary on the excesses of merchandising and the violence of pop culture, a satire of Baby Boomer self-absorption, and a plethora of jokey war-movie references ranging from Audie Murphy to Apocalypse Now.

Director Dante is no stranger to effects, having overseen the two scary Gremlins movies and Innerspace. New technology and the combined resources of two studios, Dreamworks and Universal, now allow him to expand into a Lilliputian backyard war employing armored vehicles that Hazard slaps together from cheese graters, two-penny nails, and kitchen blenders; provide a Frankensteinian spark of life to a platoon of suddenly nasty Gwendy Dolls; and give us a diverse crew of lovable Gorgonites, most notably the serene, catlike Archer (voice by Frank Langella) and the one-eyed snake Ocula (Jim Cummings).

Beholding such technical and imaginative range, it's worth noting the profound influence innovators such as George Lucas and Dreamworks' own Steven Spielberg continue to exert on all movie fantasy: Small Soldiers' Gorgonites are the natural descendants of big, furry Chewbacca and that memorable array of nightclub freaks from Star Wars, and the film is suffused with Spielbergian wonderment at the varieties of childhood imagination. Absent these giants, we might still be watching Shirley Temple pictures.

Human beings take a backseat here to what their creator calls "toys that actually kick ass," but Dante provides enough "civilians" (Major Chip Hazard's term) to help kids relate. Gregory Smith is the obligatory 14-year-old, a little short on self-esteem, caught in the mini-crossfire between the Commando Elite and the gentle Gorgonites. Kirsten Dunst is the until-now unattainable girl-next-door, also drawn into the battle. Edgy Denis Leary is the evil head of Globotech Industries, creator of the new toys. David Cross is his requisite techno-nerd. And Kevin Dunn, Ann Magnuson, Wendy Schall, and the late Phil Hartman play another quartet of thickheaded, out-of-it parents who are redeemed in the end by finally trusting in their children. At the screening I attended, a sigh of grief swept through the house when the talented Hartman first appeared on the screen: It was like seeing a beloved ghost.

In this era of ultra-violent video games, military fantasies run amok in schoolyards, and a relentless hucksterism that puts reasonable facsimiles of real weapons into the hands of children, it's refreshing (and, if you look closely enough, vaguely unsettling) to encounter a big-budget summer movie that has the nerve to intermittently mock its own premise and its own reason for being--which is, after all, to rile up the blood of kids in love with toy hand grenades and miniature bandoliers of machine-gun bullets and explosions of every description. The methods by which director Dante and at least four assorted screenwriters (Gavin Scott, Adam Rifkin, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio) sneaked some of their anti-corporate subversion past their studio-keepers will likely remain a secret.

Alas, the filmmakers couldn't go far enough. Call it irony if you like, but a new line of action figures inspired by the movie is now headed for toy stores. Presumably, they have not been equipped with warlike computer chips and will generally behave themselves. If we're lucky, most of us will survive until school starts in the fall.

Small Soldiers.
Action figures and animatronics designed by Stan Winston. Directed by Joe Dante. With Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Langella, Gregory Smith, and Kirsten Dunst. Opens Friday.


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