Occasionally, a special-effects kiddie bash is fashioned with such jaunty visual-technical bravura that it transcends cuteness to become a true pop fairy tale. Sad to say, Small Soldiers (DreamWorks) isn't one of those films. At first, though, you think that it might be.
The title characters are a platoon of spunky robot action figuresjut-jawed, rivet-jointed Commando Elite warriors who strut like post-punk G.I. Joes on steroids. Their leader, Chip Hazard (voiced in gruff high style by Tommy Lee Jones), sports an imperious gray flattop and eyebrows that meet at the center as he barks out funky drill-sergeant aphorisms. Punching through his showcase box, Chip isn't just ready for war, he's programmed for it, and the director, Joe Dante, seems as primed as he was in the Gremlins movies to plunge the audience into some major mischief.
Unfortunately, Dante has misplaced his zest for escalating slapstick outrage. There's a nifty joke built into the image of these 12-inch-high muscle-bound humanoids: In their gung ho single-mindedness, they're a tin-pot mockery of hawkish military machismo. But once you've taken in that image, the joke is over. Though the warriors move with impressive, computer-generated fluidity, they never come to life as characters.
Set against an undernourished live-action story (Gregory Smith and Kirsten Dunst in a vapid romance, Phil Hartman camping in his final film role), Small Soldiers sets the Commando Elite against a group of rival toys, a band of misshapen mutants called the Gorgonites, who are so docile they look like they would never have made it past the velvet rope at the Star Wars cantina. There's a Karloffian hunchback, a giant blinking eye, and the leader, Archer, a noble man-beast who speaks like a withering poet. They're arresting images too, but woefully underimagined compared with, say, the neurotic playthings of Toy Story.
Casting the soldiers as the enemy turns out to be perversely undramatic. Instead of rooting for the plastic warmongers to make anarchic mayhem, we're put in the odd position of wanting them to stop. Of course, the soldiers do declare war, attacking the Gorgonites in a suburban home. They start by using kitchen utensils as weapons (I liked the bit where they fire corncob holders), but ultimately, they just blast away with ordinary gunfire. That's a sure sign the movie itself is out of ammo. C+