Half-Toy Story and half-Gremlins (with a bit of Assault On Precinct 13), Small Soldiers is a great special-effects movie marred by the presence of humans. Like a 108-minute Ray Harryhausen shot, it's a curious mix of live-action and state-of-the-art animation. But the premise (what if hi-tech military computer chips transformed innocent GI toys into plastic infantrymen of destruction?) is irrelevant. Small Soldiers was born out of a simple, effective idea: "Everybody loved Toy Story right? What if we did Toy Story, but put some people in it?"
The result is a kiddie-orientated, effects-spectacular in which the actors play second fiddle to the visuals. But the teeny toys are what you really want to see. The muscle-bound commandos rampage through small-town America, quipping, fighting, even performing obscene medical experiments on Dunst's dolls. The quality of the effects is smooth and inventive: in both Stan Winston's animatronics and ILM's computer graphics, attention to detail is spot on - they even manage to mimic the stiff-jointed movement of the plastic-moulded combatants.
And if the toys look impressive, there's a cracking line-up of voiceover talents that brings them fully to life. Jones barks out the orders as square-jawed Commando Elite leader Chip Hazard, while Dirty Dozen actors Ernest Borgnine (Kip Killagin), Jim Brown (Butch Meathook) and George Kennedy (Brick Bazooka) voice the rank-and-file grunts. Teen stars Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar are also drafted in to provide mouth-sounds for the mutated Gwendy Dolls.
The problem is that Small Soldiers offers special effects first and merchandising opportunity second, with interesting story coming a distant third. It's little more than an onslaught of imaginative, Gremlins-style violence. ("Don't call it violence, call it action. Kids love action," says Denis Leary's toy company boss.) There's a throwaway teenage love story between Dunst and Smith and a dysfunctional family situation to solve. Other than that, it's good toy versus bad. And as it's the malformed Gorgonites being oppressed by the ethnic-cleansing Commando Elite, the movie's focus lies with them. Which is a shame, because Jones' square-jawed Rambos are by far the more interesting characters.
But if this doesn't make a ton of money at the box office, who cares? It's already spawned a wide range of action figures, lunch boxes, computer games and even a Universal Studios themed attraction. It isn't just a movie, it's a spin-off goldmine for Universal's marketing department. The ultimate irony? This is a film about toys that can talk, walk and learn, but the real figures are little more than beefed-up Action Men.
Vacuous? Yes, but it's still fairly entertaining popcorn-fodder, awash with a riot of OTT action, including explosions, CD-firing toasters and go-karts mounted with chainsaws. Small Soldiers doesn't have the crossover adult appeal that Toy Story boasted, but kids should be more than entertained, reeled in by the generous splash of cool playthings, big action and splendid FX.
A whirl of FX mayhem as disbelieving townsfolk battle toys programmed with military tactics. Home Alone meets Toy Story meets Gremlins in one of the more entertaining kids' flicks of the year. Adults, however, may find it all too juvenile.