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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 1/30/99



Small Soldiers
Signature Selection

1997 (1998) - DreamWorks S.K.G.

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: C
Think Gremlins meets Toy Story (only not as good as either), and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here. Your basic G.I. Joe-type action figures go on a rampage, when equipped with military artificial intelligence chips. Clever... kinda.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A/A-
Decent anamorphic widescreen video, if a bit soft on occasion. But an outstanding Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, and a boat-load of extras allows this DVD to pack punch. Plus, you know... you get Joe Dante's signature in gold-stamped foil.

Overall Rating: B+
OK, the flick isn't the greatest, but this disc has a whole lot of what you want from DVD. It's fun to watch, and there's enough goodies here to keep you busy for a while. If you think you'll like it, it's worth a look.

Specs and Features

110 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch in chapter 9, at 65:22), Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, deleted scenes & effects shots, outtakes, behind-the-scenes featurette, Play Station game preview, cast & crew bios, production notes, film-themed menu screens with animation and sound effects, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), Spanish & French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French & Spanish, Close Captioned

Review

When Heartland toys is taken over by super-conglomerate Globotech, a pair of bumbling toy designers, desperate to impress their new boss (Gil Mars, played by comedian Denis Leary), implant their new line of Elite Commando and Gorgonite action figures with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence microchips. The problem? These are some bad-ass chips, designed for military weapons use.

Enter young Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), who inadvertently obtains a set of the action figures while minding his Dad's toy store. Before long, the Elite Commandos, who are programed to seek out and destroy the Gorgonites, come to life and attempt to do just that, leaving the store in shambles. The leader of the Gorgonite figures, Archer (voiced by Frank Langella), asks Alan's help to find the rest of his kind, who have hidden from the Commandos' wrath. And when the Commando leader, Major Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones), learns than Alan is helping the Gorgonites, Alan's friends and family (and an annoying neighbor played by the late Phil Hartman) become targets for extermination.

Joe Dante films have never been big favorites of mine. That's nothing against Dante - it's just that of all his films, only Matinee and Explorers (OK, that one's tough to admit) have entertained me. I was not a fan of Gremlins, and Small Soldiers is similar to the earlier film in many respects. The story is pretty simplistic, and some of the dialogue is downright awful (almost anything recited by a Gwendy doll comes to mind here). That's OK I guess, because although there are some in jokes meant for an older crowd, this film is definitely going after a PG-13 (give or take a couple of years) audience. Be warned though, some of this humor has a dark, twisted bent - definitely not for the younger viewers.

There are some darned fine effects on display in Small Soldiers. The action figures are brought to life on screen, by no less than Industrial Light & Magic and monster-man Stan Winston - some serious talent indeed. In some cases (as you'll learn in the featurette included on the disc), several puppeteers were required to produce the character movements on stage. And CGI imagery was blended seamlessly with the practical effects, to create the full range of character movement. The result is fun to watch, even if the movie is less than thrilling.

Perhaps the coolest thing about this film, is the impressive supporting cast of vocal talent assembled. The Gorgonite characters are voiced by Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean... better known to film fans as Spinal Tap. And who better to speak for the Commando squad, than the cast of The Dirty Dozen, including Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine and George Kennedy, among others.

The anamorphic widescreen transfer included on this DVD is generally good, if occasionally a bit lacking in detail. The picture at times has a soft quality about it, and the contrast was a bit overblown. Not really enough to bother me, but certainly not up to the level of DreamWorks' other recent DVDs, The Peacemaker and Mouse Hunt. Thankfully, however, the sound makes up for the video issues. The disc defaults automatically to the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (a nice touch). The sound field is excellent, with aggressive use of the surround channels, solid bass, and good overall clarity. Almost any battle sequence will demonstrate the audio quality (after a certain point in the film, it's all combat). And the dramatic score, by composer Jerry Goldsmith, is nicely woven into the overall sound mix.

There's a good batch of extras here as well. You get a theatrical trailer, a nice featurette on the making of the film, a preview of the Play Station game (OK, a commercial, but better than the "If you liked this film, try..." crap we see on some other studios' DVDs), a few bloopers and deleted scenes (including a couple of unused effects shots), and plenty of production notes, and cast and crew biographies. Given that this is a director-approved signature edition, a commentary track by Dante would have been welcome, but that's a small complaint.

I do have to give DreamWorks a lot of credit - their menus are impressive. They're full of animation and sound, including the scene selection page, where all of the chapter selections are previewed in full motion video. When you select options from the main menu, one of several Gorgonite characters appears on screen, and wipes the new menu on. And best of all, as with the other DreamWorks DVDs, you don't have to sit through disclaimer pages at the outset - the title graphic appears almost instantly, when you put the DVD in your player.

Bottom line

Dante fans, go nuts. I have to say, even though the flick isn't exactly high brow fare, it's at least entertaining. The voice talent assembled here is definitely fun. And the disc has got some nice DVD content value. I'd definitely recommend Small Soldiers on DVD, to anyone who thinks they might be interested.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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