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IN SHORT: It's Gremlins 3. Fine by me.
Eight years or so ago, director Joe Dante did the almost impossible and directed a sequel that was far superior to its predecessor. That movie was Gremlins 2 The New Batch featuring cute, fuzzy bear like creatures who morphed into evil vicious things and bred like flies. To save the world, a teen boy and his wacky girlfriend must destroy the monsters, with the help of the sole gremlin who started it all, and must learn to fight for survival.
Which brings us to 1998 and the world of action figures. Globotech, an incredibly rich, multinational corporation has gobbled up the sweet-as-pie Heartland Toys. The two designers who didn't get dumped save their jobs by implanting rejected military computer chips into a new line of action figures. Problem is, the chips install real intelligence and extraordinary capabilities into the dolls. Once activated, the Commando Elite (think GI Joe crossed with the WWF) figures terrorize a suburban family they believe to be protecting their enemies, the Gorgonites (all programmed to "hide and lose" the war) Teen outcast boy Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) must rescue the girl next door -- his potential new first big time thumpa thumpa -- defeat the small soldiers, and save the cute Gorgonite monsters who realize they must fight back to save themselves.
Yep, it's Gremlins all right. Joe Dante is still at the helm and this Small Soldiers continues the assault on American culture started in G2TNB. Indeed, a sly reference to the predecessor flick is the key to the whole story. From there on in, the targets include everything from old movies to doll collectibles; flavor of the month music groups; PBS style new age inner child gobbledygook and internet SSL merchandise purchases in the script by the names listed above (with additional input from Anne Spielberg, Danny Rubin, Jerry Rees, Frank Deese and Zak Penn, according to my database). The parody extends to a classic horror flick scored with its original music (the rest of the score under the supervision of the prolific Jerry Goldsmith).
Hell, I'm chomping at the bit to give away some of the jokes. Ain't gonna do it. What I will say continues my diatribe about suspension of disbelief that I've been going on about all summer. Accept that the X1000 chips in these dolls can provide actual intelligence to the figures, then the process of turning a well stocked garage into an armory makes perfect sense. It did to me.
How clever is Small Soldiers? Let's look beneath the artificial action figure skin . . . Tommy Lee Jones is the voice of Major Chip Hazard, leader of the Commando Elite supported by the reunited cast of legendary war flick The Dirty Dozen. Frank Langella is Archer, leader of the pacifist Gorgonites, supported by the reunited cast of Spinal Tap, the funniest set of misfits of all time. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci also provide voices for the film's take on a trademark of Mattel and thus not Barbie, but Gwendy ("She's so Trendy") Collectible dolls. First Lady Gwendy's got her Jackie O pink pillbox hat. Cannon Fodder Gwendy sports a camo bikini and . . . ooops, I gave one away. Sorry.
Stan Winston's animatronics and figure effects are so much fun that the human cast is secondary to them. Denis Leary plays the heartless corporate honcho. Dante regulars Robert Picardo and Dick Miller have supportive roles and Phil Hartman, God bless him, makes his final screen appearance as the technogeek neighbor, father of teen heartthrob Kirsten Dunst.
Yep, the teenboys are gonna be happy. Action, explosions and Kirsten. Ah, to be 16 again . . .
The downside? Outside of the leaders, the supporting action figures are incredibly bland and forgetful. Sure they attack and shoot nails and blow things up, but there isn't a real sense that the humans under attack were going to take it in the butt. Teen boy is kind of wimpy in comparison to Kirsten's Christy, who swings a mean cheerleader baton. But Cranky's a sucker for cultural parody, so I was happy.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Small Soldiers, he would have paid . . .
Small Soldiers is so much cinema cotton candy. You could miss it and you wouldn't miss much -- except a darn good time in the dark. The littlest kidlets behind me, and we're talking 4 years old or so, were squealing with delight. The grownups were doubling over at the multitude of cultural gags -- like I wrote, this thing has got long term nostalgia built into it. That's the kind of thing that could relegate a flick to the TV scrapheap real fast, or find long life on video tape. We'll have to see. For you anal-retentive trivia heads out there, The Dirty Dozen (Commando Elite) voices are Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Bruce Dern, George Kennedy and Clint Walker. Spinal Tap (Gorgonite) voices are Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer.
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