War is hell," General Sherman once said. All I can say is, he should have tried playing war in the 1990s. Boys and (increasingly) girls have become masters of their own universes, doling out death and destruction to their hearts' content. Joe Dante's Small Soldiers, in which a set of "Commando Elite" action figures (G.I. Joes with 'roid rage) destroy a small-town Ohio home in order to save it, doesn't just pick up on this trend. It carries it into the next century. With military microchips embedded in their plastic skulls, the Commando Elite are capable of walking and talking...and stalking. Like Dante's Gremlins, Small Soldiers takes a child's dream-come-true--toys that play back!--and wrenches it into a nightmare. But, for some reason, Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), the kid who first discovers the pint-sized Terminators, doesn't seem all that alarmed. Dante, a protégé of both Steven Spielberg and Roger Corman, skips right past the Spielbergian wonder and dives into Corman-esque exploitation. Led by Major Chip Hazard, who has a crewcut so sharp you could slice bread on it, the commandos launch an assault on the Abernathy household using the Abernathys' own small appliances. They're after the Gorgonites, another set of action figures, this one programmed to hide from and then lose to the commandos. A wacky collection of monster-film rejects, the Gorgonites are befriended by Alan--or, at least, they would be if Dante were paying any attention to things like exposition and dramatic development. Instead, all his imagination seems to have gone into making the animatronic/computer-animated fight scenes work. They work beautifully, but nothing else does. And that turns the movie into just another war toy--a war toy posing as a war-toy message movie.
"Don't call it violence," says Denis Leary, as the head of Globotech, a former defense contractor that's now in the toy business. "Call it action." Gee, I wonder what Dante and the screenwriters would call the mayhem in Small Soldiers--violence or action? I'd call it the ol' bait-and-switch--an anti-violence movie that wallows in violence. It's also an anti-commercialization movie that wallows in commercialization. "Too bad," Leary says when viewing the damage his little army men have inflicted. "It would have made one hell of a commercial." Would have? The movie's its own commercial.