Small Soldiers

The best case scenario for Small Soldiers is that it becomes the measuring stick that all other movies about toys that come to life end up getting compared to. That's not going to happen; Small Soldiers might have it's pleasures, but it isn't nearly good enough to leave that kind of footprint.

Second best scenario: Small Soldiers gets compared to Toy Story, which is not just a beloved classic, it's a cornerstone for an entire era in animation history. But we can rule that out, too, because Toy Story felt like a breakthrough when it came out, while Small Soldiers feels like a less anarchic rehash of Gremlins. (That might be because Joe Dante directed both Small Soldiers and Gremlins.) Also, Toy Story has a lot more heart and is much more streamlined. No, Small Soldiers isn't nearly good enough to hang with the Toy Stories of the world.

Worst case scenario: Small Soldiers gets lumped in with Toys, the batshit crazy Robin Williams movie about a toy maker whose whimsical factory gets co-opted by an evil general who wants to create war toys that will train the next generation of kids to be good killers. That movie has some interesting ideas in it, but it's pretty flawed. It looks cool, but it's obvious that it is stealing its entire visual style from Tim Burton, and although it has some good scenes in it, the tone of the movie never coheres. It can't quite decide if it wants to be a Willy Wonka style tour through a child's fantasy land or if it wants to be a serious anti-war movie. There's a good idea for a movie buried somewhere in Toys, but what actually got made is pretty inconsistent.

Here's the bad news: Small Soldiers definitely deserves to get lumped in with Toys.

small soldiers

There are three big reasons why. The first is that the plots are very similar. Small Soldiers is about a large corporation who buys a toy company and then demands that they switch from making educational toys to making very expensive violent toys. One of the toy designers accidentally inserts some unused military computer chips that the company had in stock into the toys, and the chips bring the new toys to life and turn them into, well, small soldiers. The specifics are slightly different - Toys is more about the making of the toys, while Small Soldiers is more about the people who own the toys - but the themes are pretty similar.

The second reason is that both Toys and Small Soldiers suffer from the same tonal problems: neither can commit to being a movie for children or being a movie for adults. Small Soldiers never quite settles on how threatening these rampaging toys are supposed to be: are we supposed to be scared that they might actually murder the kids they are attacking? Or is it just funny that these toys have switched places with the kids and now it's the toys that are throwing the firecrackers? It wants to walk the line between being an action movie and a comedy, but it doesn't have enough thrills to be the former or enough laughs to be the latter.

The final reason why the movies are similar is that they would both badly need an edit. In Toys' case, it needs a script edit. That movie took over a decade to be made, and several of the plotlines obviously come from different eras of the script and they don't all jibe together. In Small Soldiers' case, it needs to be faster and leaner. The first twenty minutes of the movie are devoted to setting up the backstory of the kid that buys the toys, but none of that detail really matters after he gets taken hostage by them. And even if all of the stuff about how he got suspended from school was going to get paid off in the end, it still needs to go by quicker. Regardless of whether Small Soldiers ultimately settles on being a thriller or a comedy, it needs to start thrilling or telling jokes before the first half hour is up, because once it's gone that long without doing anything interesting it's hard to are about what happens.

I was overstating it a bit when I said that being compared to Toys was the worst possible fate that Small Soldiers could face. It would have been worse if it had gotten compared to something truly dire like the Garbage Pail Kids movie. Still, it's not good company to be in. Who wants to be exiled to the island of misfit toys when you could be hanging out in Andy's room with Woody and Buzz? Maybe the people who made this movie wouldn't mind - after all, they knowingly set out to make a movie about dysfunctional toys - but for the rest of us sane people, that doesn't sound very good.

Winner: The Cat

Small Soldiers on IMDB