Action sells -- the film and the merchandising

Movie: Small Soldiers

Our Rating: 3.00

"Small Soldiers" is a cleverly assembled tale of defective playthings coming to life for pitched battles against each other and humans. But in all fairness to unprepared audiences, the film ought to come equipped with at least two consumer warnings.

For starters, the comic adventure, which mixes effects a la "Toy Story" with live action, was rushed to theaters before seven or so writers had a chance to finish the screenplay. The filmmakers' goal was to stage the opening to coincide with the July 10 arrival of the Hasbro tie-in toys at stores. So, just like "Toy Story" and practically every movie aimed at young audiences, the latest flick from director Joe Dante amounts to a feature-length commercial. Which came first, the idea or the merchandising plan?

Additionally, "Small Soldiers" feigns opposition to violence and then changes colors. Denis Leary is greedy toy baron Gil Mars, who encourages new employees Larry Benson (Jay Mohr) and Irwin Wayfair (David Cross) to exploit little boys' basest instincts. "Don't call it violence," the oily head of Globotech tells the pair of inventors from the newly merged Heartland Play Systems. "Call it action. Action sells."

Mars' philosophy is placed in stark opposition to store owner Stuart Abernathy (Kevin Dunn), who won't allow war toys to be sold at his cheery, money-losing store located smack in the heart of all-American Ohio burg Winslow Corners. Dante proceeds to unleash a load of often violent combat, probably too intense for younger children. He has played this dirty trick twice before, targeting 1984's "Gremlins" and its 1990 sequel at kids and then turning in gruesome sequences.

Those reservations aside, "Small Soldiers" amounts to pleasantly diverting popcorn fare, an edgy, imaginative small-town adventure that gets its kicks from likable teen leads, suitably out-of-it parental figures and an ingenious blend of animatronic puppets created by "Jurassic Park" f/x wizard Stan Winston and computer animation courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic.

Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith of "Krippendorf's Tribe") sneaks the new Globotech toys into his dad's store while pop's way and unwittingly launches the battle.

The rough-and-tough Commando Elite, led by macho Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones), include appropriately named jarheads Brick Bazooka, Kip Killigan, Butch Meathook, Nick Nitro and Link Static. Hazard, in a funny reference to "Patton," stands in front of an American-flag crossword puzzle as he exhorts his troops (variously voiced by actors who appeared in 1967 World War II movie "The Dirty Dozen") on to victory, borrowing bits and pieces of famous patriotic speeches.

Archer (Frank Langella) heads the horror-show, beastly Gorgonites, a group of creatures including the one-eyed Ocula, the whirling Insaniac, Freakenstein, Slam Fist, and Punch It And Scratch It. The self-deprecating defeatists are voiced by the stars of "This is Spinal Tap," with nods to Peter Lorre and schlocky Borscht Belt comics.

Hazard and his troops raid the Abernathy family garage, turning spare parts into lethal weapons and raise the stakes by kidnapping Alan's romantic interest, Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst), dosing her parents (the late Phil Hartman and Wendy Schaal) with sleeping pills and rewiring Christy's Barbie-like dolls for combat. Nods to "Gulliver's Travels," "Frankenstein" and "Apocalypse Now" are purely intentional.

The set-up is more fun than the climax, which devolves into a firebomb-throwing, nail-shooting, corncob-holder-lobbing attack on the two families and toy creators Benson and Wayfair, with the humans finally employing a riding mower and some sort of electro-magnetic technology. Boy gets girls, dad reunites with son, etc., etc.

Sure, the Commando Elite are mangled beyond recognition and blown to bits by the end of "Small Soldiers." Why worry, though? A fresh supply is sure to be available at Toys R Us.

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