A boy receives a shipment of toy soldiers, which accidentally come to life and start to destroy the town.
Like so much of Joe Dante's recent output, Small Soldiers aspires to be rather more than it actually is. The blend of dark comedy, child-friendly action and CGI effects performed disappointingly in the States, for in trying to cover the bases, Small Soldiers falls awkwardly between the two main categories - too frightening for younger kids, too childish for adults. Nevertheless, there is still much to enjoy.
The setting is (surprise!) an idyllic looking small town, in this case Winslow, Ohio. There, teen delinquent Alan (Smith), takes delivery of a shipment of voice-activated Action Man-style toys - the army fatigued Commandos and the gentle Gorgonites - to sell in his dad's plaything emporium. But unknown to Alan, the toys have been fitted with munitions chips - thanks to a spot of tampering on the part of toy company worker Larry Cross (Mohr). Led by he-man Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones), the Commandos (lent vocal power by the surviving cast members of the Dirty Dozen bar Charles Bronson) come to life, break out of their boxes and go in search of the Gorgonites.
The subsequent levels of damage caused by the shin-high plastic figures is staggering, especially when they target Alan, his would-be girlfriend Christy (Dunst) and their parents simply for the crime of apparently "siding" with the Gorgonites (vocalised by the Spinal Tap cast) after Alan rescues their genial leader Archer (voiced by Frank Langella).
Small Soldiers comes across as a toy shop, rather than pet shop, version of Gremlins, and one with a great premise rapidly drowned in a sea of computerised mayhem. The set pieces, while unnecessarily unpleasant at times (Christy is set upon by her own dolls in one spectacularly vicious scene) are hugely well staged. Stan Winston's grotesquely ugly animatronic figures fit seamlessly with the CGI and live action, no more so than in a finale which sees thousands of pint-sized militia men converging on the neighbourhood.
Dunst and Smith make for blandly appealing teen romantics but of the adults only a cameo from Denis Leary as a military magnate, and the late Phil Hartman (in his last role) as Christy's gadget-hungry dad raise much interest.
Yet for all its shortcomings, the end result is quite entertaining. It may be another blockbuster over-reliant on its special effects, but thanks to its excellent visuals and semblance of a story, Small Soldiers works considerably better than some.
It's Gremlins with toy soldiers, except not quite as dark or funny.