Small Soldiers (1998)

Joe Dante has made some utterly marvelous films.  Joe Dante has made some truly terrible films.

One need only compare Gremlins with Gremlins 2 to see what I mean.  The original is brilliant, absurd and, at times, a little over the top.  The sequel is silly:  He abandoned any sense of restraint, ignored any attempt to make the action seem plausible, mocked the original film (e.g., the dreadful Lincoln’s birthday bit), and took a few, mildly fourth-wall sound gags in the original and upped the ante with an awful sequence featuring Hulk Hogan watching the movie in the theater (which has been mercifully edited out of recent television showings of the film).

And this inconsistency has plagued his career.  Glancing down his list of films on IMDB, one does get the impression that the good films far outweigh the bad.  Unfortunately, few of his better efforts come anywhere near the heights of his best work.  And perhaps the secret is that his often extreme post-modern sense of comedy was far too exotic for the mainstream audience (somehow, the brilliant Eerie, Indiana TV series comes to mind) and was doomed to be appreciated by only a small, dedicated clique of genre fans who could appreciate all his references to past classics.

I had long classified Small Soldiers as one of his hopelessly silly films, based on seeing a few scenes from somewhere in the middle of the film.  Seeing the whole film, however, proved to be a pleasant surprise.  It may not be Gremlins, but he introduces a mostly plausible threat, gives us a solid, comic build up to their creation, and only gradually brings the story to the point where the threat menaces the human characters.  And the sillier side of the dangerous toys doesn’t get a lot of screen time.  More, perhaps, than Gremlins gave to the often absurd behavior of its television-addicted monsters, but not enough to bring the entire film down.

As usual, it’s good to see Dick Miller in his usual small part.  Dante regular Robert Picardo appears briefly – and there is, of course, the usual blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Archie Hahn (whose sole claim to fame is making cameo appearances in Joe Dante movies).  Dante also lined up an impressive voice cast for his toys, including Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Langella, and cast members of The Dirty Dozen and This Is Spinal Tap.  Dennis Leary makes a very welcome appearance (as always) as the billionaire entrepreneur responsible for the creation of the Commando Elite toys.  It is nice to see a film where the CEO isn’t a heartless monster, deliberately risking the public – and not afraid to take responsibility for his actions (even if he doesn’t want the company name in the news.

Dennis also gets the best lines in the film, at the very end, when he turns the disaster into a major success for his company.  His final comment, as his helicopter soars away, is priceless.

So it ain’t Gremlins, but if you’re in the mood for a silly comedy – or even better, if your kids are, then you could easily do far, far worse.

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