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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 07/16/1998,

Small Soldiers

Director Joe Dante has had a penchant for making films where masses of marauding mites assault arrogantly unwary humans -- Piranha, or Gremlins. Small Soldiers is a kind of Toy-Story-goes-berserk strung to the plot elements of Gremlins, where two teenagers engaged in a blossoming romance (a pre-pubescent Gregory Smith and a maturing Kirsten Dunst) must stop a renegade horde of mutant invaders before their secluded slice of suburbia is overrun.

Denis Leary kicks things off as a tyrannical corporate exec who commands his obsequious game designer (Jay Mohr) to make a kick-ass toy that can play on its own. The result is the Commando Elite figure, a GI Joe pumped up on testosterone and equipped with a nuclear-powered computer chip hocked from the military's supply room. The Elite's sworn enemies are the Gorgonites, a docile race of alien misfits programmed to serve as fodder for their juiced-up counterparts. The slapstick mayhem -- "Toys are hell" -- shifts into gear when a pre-release batch of action figures lands in Smith's lap. Once activated, the Commando Elite, led by Tommy Lee Jones (rekindling his Fugitive days) as the voice of Chip Hazard, set out to destroy all Gorgonites and their allies, which leads up to a climactic Precinct 13-style siege of Smith's abode.

The live-action/animation mix by FX master Stan Winston is jaw-droppingly impressive, but what makes Small Soldiers so thoroughly entertaining is the spiked wit layered into the film's fabric by Dante and his talented team of writers. They deconstruct and spoof the war (Apocalypse Now and Patton) and horror/sci-fi (Frankenstein, The Road Warrior, and even ET) genres so effectively, there's something here to give everyone a satiating chuckle. Sadly, Small Soldiers marks the last film in the career of comedian/actor Phil Hartman.

-- Tom Meek