[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
About halfway through Small Soldiersit struck me: just who is this film’s audience? On the surface it’s an adolescent boy’s fantasy turned nightmare, a “War Toy Story” with a pair of spunky teenage heroes in the line of fire. But there’s another film here too, a consumer satire crammed with pop culture references and movie quotes aimed at much bigger kids – well, adults actually.
Think of it as a cartoon version of The Dirty Dozen as reenacted by technologically enhanced GI Joe® dolls, but that’s only the most obvious touchstone in this mulligan stew of film godfathers. The movie’s best scene is a post-modern twist on Bride of Frankenstein as the Commandos somehow learn to manufacture more chips and turn a collection of “Gwendie” dolls into stripped-down, punked-out GI Janes sassing inane come-ons while swarming like a nest of spiders. It’s one scene that seems to work not just for all ages but both genders, especially when the kids gain the upper hand and turn it into a thoroughly satisfying Barbie® bash.
Alas, the film is never again that good. The script tries to cram too much in: adolescent romance, high tech action, satire, even a polemic pacifist message. The obvious parallels between Small Soldiers and director Joe Dante’s earlier Gremlins illuminate the problems. Where Gremlins is lean, mean, and dark, Small Soldiers is sprawling and far too calculatingly commercial, a film engineered by a committee with an eye toward demographics: something for the boys, something for the girls, a little cinematic spoofing for the adults. Dante’s cinematic restraint and satirical asides are refreshing in a summer of sensory overkill, but ultimately Small Soldiers is an army without a leader, heading off in all directions at once.