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SMALL SOLDIERS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Langella, Gregory Smith, Kirsten Dunst, Dennis Leary
Director:  Joe Dante
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  December 8, 1998

Film **

Small Soldiers seems to represent a promising start for Dreamworks quality-wise (more further down), but as a movie, I found myself a little unsure how to take it.  I assumed going into it that it was basically a kid's film, but it seemed a tad too violent, even mean spirited, to qualify as one.  And there's nothing about it that would really inspire adults to shell out hard earned money to experience.  True, the special effects are cool, but audiences are demanding more than just to be visually 'wowed' these days.  Special effects have to enhance a good story, too, as does Titanic or Dark City.

The central premise is intriguing enough.  A big wig CEO (Leary) has recently acquired both a major toy company, and a company that created much of the military's technical gadgetry.  So the idea comes about to create action figures with using military style 'intelligent' chips.  They would be able to walk, talk, indeed, fight a war.

So two series are created--the Commando Elite, led by Chip Hazard (voice of Tommy Lee Jones) and the Gorgonites, led by Archer (Frank Langella).  Of course, the problem is, these toys are a little too smart, and a little too dedicated to their imaginary war, and before long, much chaos and destruction rain down on the people around them. Think Toy Story from Hell.

Storywise, the main weaknesses are the human beings surrounding the animation, which is typical of such films.  Obviously so much attention was given the special effects that the people were blandly drawn, and given scenarios with oh-so-many cliches.  The troubled boy who's family doesn't understand him.  The girl he likes, who's currently seeing some leather jacket clad biker.  And the annoying nosy next door neighbors.

The other problem, as I mentioned, was the abundance of violence and mean spirit in the movie.  Not too far into the film, we see Chip Hazard actually cut the young protagonist with a knife.  We're talking real bleeding, here.  And as the picture progresses, we witness a little kid getting attacked and tied up, another teen getting set on fire, and a brutal fight atop a telephone pole.  There's even a scene where a kid gets shot up by corn on the cob skewers, complete with blood oozing from every wound.  Usually when you see this many kids being victimized by bloody violent acts, you're watching a Wes Craven R-rated type movie.

The action figures are supposed to be only toys, but considering they seem to walk, talk, and think like people, it's still a bit disturbing to see them chopped, shoved down garbage disposals, or obliterated with a lawn mower.  Frankly, if this movie is supposed to be targeted at children, I think it will only succeed in giving them nightmares.

And as I mentioned, there's not much here for adults, considering the somewhat lame story line and principal characters.  The animation is good, but even that suffers compared to the other big computer generated films of the summer, ANTZ and A Bug's Life.  This might be a movie better off left on the shelf.

Disc Quality ****

Dreamworks has clearly learned how to do right by DVD.  This is a terrific looking anamorphic transfer, with bright colors, sharp images, and no compression evidence or grain that I could see.  The computer animation renders beautifully onto DVD.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is sharp, clean, dynamic and lively.  All in all, a reference quality disc.

Features ****

The disc includes a trailer, a behind the scenes documentary, deleted scenes, outtakes, production notes, cast and crew bios, and a preview of the PlayStation video game based on the movie.  The menus are animated, too.  Nice touch.

Summary:

Small Soldiers might be only an average movie, but itís an above average DVD, and clear indication of the kind of quality player Dreamworks intends to be in the market.  With a bevy of good features and a terrific audio/video transfer, this disc is almost worth owning in spite of the less than inspired movie that goes along with it.