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by Mike McGranaghan

Have you ever seen those commercials for action figures where it looks like the toys can do all sorts of really cool things? Small Soldiers is like a 2-hour version of one of those commercials. In this film, a group of action figures comes to life - and have the sorts of adventures that kids often dream up for their toys. Although it's aimed at a family audience, Small Soldiers is really a darker version of Toy Story, a satire that pokes fun not at the way children play exactly, but at the tools that toy manufacturers give them to play with.

The film begins in a large toy company where two designers - Larry Benson (Jay Mohr) and Irwin Mayfair (David Cross) - show their latest creations to their boss, Gil Mars (Denis Leary). Mayfair has created a series of benevolent action figures called Gorgonites; they live in a forest world and are led by a stately figure named Archer, who kind of looks like a cross between a bear and a dog. Benson, on the other hand, has created a group of soldiers called the Commando Elite. They have huge forearms, take-no-prisoners grins, and names like Nick Nitro. Their leader is Chip Hazard and - like the others - he has a little voice box that allows him to say a couple of sentences. Mars is impressed with the Commando Elite, not so impressed by the Gorgonites. He has a brainstorm: "I want toys so smart that when kids play with them, they play back," he says. And so - in an effort to make "smart" toys - munitions chips are placed in the figures, allowing them to walk, talk, and fight. The soldiers are pronounced the "good guys" while the peaceful-but-odd-looking Gorgonites are assigned the enemy role.

The first shipment is sent to a small, family-owned toy store; the owner's son Alan (Gregory Smith) convinces a deliveryman to let the store be the first place to sell them. Alan even promises a set to the cute girl who lives next door. Her name is Christy Fimple (Kirstin Dunst), and Alan has a crush on her, even though she (predictably) dates a motorcycle-riding loser. Trouble begins when the toys come to life and the soldiers begin hunting the Gorgonites. It soon becomes clear that for the toys, war is not a game. The soldiers are so serious about killing their "enemies" that when Alan and Christy try to protect the Gorgonites, they become targets, too.

The effects in Small Soldiers are the primary selling point. This is one of those movies that combines live action with computer animation. Sometimes this kind of thing works (Jurassic Park, for instance) and sometimes is doesn't. In this case, it works very well. The effects are quite convincing, allowing the toys and the humans to share the same space realistically. I also liked the design of the action figures, which is very funny. Tommy Lee Jones provides the voice of Chip Hazard; seeing this gruff-looking doll with a crew-cut and Jones's voice is clever all by itself. Frank Langella does the voice of Archer. The other soldiers and Gorgonites are not really given too much personality, but I had fun just looking at them.

In terms of plot, Small Soldiers doesn't veer too far from other movies in which small creatures wreak havoc upon a small town. It follows the formula created by Gremlins almost point-for-point. Perhaps not so coincidentally, both films have the same director, Joe Dante. I've always had a soft spot for Dante's twisted story-telling style, especially in his underrated masterpiece Matinee. Small Soldiers is a predictable choice for him, as it is very similar to his earlier hit. Still, it's the little touches of humor the director brings to the film that makes it seem at least a little bit fresh (I'm referring specifically to an encounter between the Commando Elite and Christy's Barbie dolls - and it's not exactly what you probably think it is).

If Small Soldiers was just interesting computer effects trapped in a Gremlins rip-off, I wouldn't bother recommending it. However, there's something more to this film, I think, and it has to do with the way children play. Early on, someone asks the Denis Leary character if the Commando Elite toys are "too violent" for children. "Don't call it violence," Leary replies, "call it action. Kids love action." As the movie went on, I realized that it was a satire that has its central idea in this statement.

Think about the "action" figures that kids play with today (I played with them, too, as a child). You have good guys and bad guys. The packaging, the commercials, the characters themselves emphasize fighting. Kids are encouraged to act out various violent fantasies with these toys. They know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. They know that "action" means "fantasy violence." Put a Batman doll and a Joker doll in a kid's hands and what does he do with them? He makes them fight, engaging in all kinds of play brutality. Small Soldiers pokes fun at this, suggesting that violence and war aren't the good clean fun we unintentionally lead kids to believe they are.

It's an interesting point, although it's kind of subtly laid into the story. Most of the picture is devoted to the mayhem these little dolls create. It's worth mentioning that Small Soldiers is rated PG-13; the ads are aimed right at young children, but the violence is more hard-edged than many parents will expect. No one is seriously hurt, but the soldiers obviously intend to kill everyone, including the teenagers.

Small Soldiers is by no means a great movie, but I think it's fun. (It's also the last chance we'll have to see the late, great Phil Hartman on the big screen. He has a small role as Christy's dad, and he gets laughs despite a limited amount of screen time. I miss Hartman's talent already.) No doubt kids will see the movie just for the cool effects, but I think it works well as a satire, too. It's not particularly blunt, but the pointed wit is there. How can we tell our kids that violence is a bad thing, then send them out back to play with the Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles?

( out of four)