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For having made a lot of mainstream films, Joe Dante is a strange filmmaker, one whom I’ve liked but never quite grasped. I wonder what films he would’ve made if he hadn’t become a protégé of Steven Spielberg so early in his career? He has done films that are inventive like InnerSpace, sweet like Matinee, and harrowing like The Howlingand sometimes they’re a bit of all of these things at the same time, like his notorious hit Gremlins (one of the reasons we now have the PG-13 rating).

Dante’s career has been marked by this kind of schizophrenia, which is why it’s been so hard for me to get a bead on him. After several years’ absence from directing feature films, he’s done a movie for Spielberg’s DreamWorks called Small Soldiers – and a good sign of the schizophrenic nature of this action film is what previews are playing with it, ranging from The Avengers (a likely PG-13) to the G-rated The Rugrats Movie.

It looks like DreamWorks is selling this film to action fans who aren’t old enough to get into Lethal Weapon IV – but the end result is a bit like Starship Troopers, which was aimed at teens but was a hard R for its violence. Is this too intense for young kids? Maybe: there’s no blood, but there’s intensity and the use of many everyday objects as weapons.

The story: defense contractor Globotech buys up Heartland Play Systems during a diversification drive. Globotech’s hands-on CEO (Denis Leary, who I always find entertaining) loves the new line of violent “Commando Elite” action figures Heartland is about to launch, and is underwhelmed by the gentle “Gorgonite” aliens the company had also wanted to make. So he orders the designers to make the two toy lines mutual enemies, plus he has the brain-flash that – hey! – toys should be able to do all the outlandish things they used to do in toy commercials. (Such ads were toned down a while ago – not that ads are any less insidious, omnipresent or misleading than they were then…)

But the military technology employed in the figures turns the Commandoes into paranoid marauders that go after Gorgonites and anyone who seems to be on their side. It also makes the Gorgonites – led by Archer (voiced by Frank Langella), a cross between a floppy-eared dog and the alien from Predator – gentle to a fault. Their designer (David Cross) didn’t have the heart to make them evil, but programmed them instead to hide from or lose to the Commando Elite, and their military computer programming accentuates this.

Meanwhile, Commando designer Jay Mohr of Jerry Maguire and Paulie learns that an early shipment of the toys has reached a small town. There, Alan (Gregory Smith), the son of Ann Magnusen and a toy seller played by Kevin Dunn (Gozilla, Hot Shots!), opens it up, befriends Archer, and gets targeted by the Commandos, who kidnap the cute neighbor girl Christy (Kirsten Dunst) just because it’s in their training to do so. In the midst of this war, the Gorgonites learn when it’s right to hide…and when it’s right to fight.

And though this film has a lot of flaws, I liked it.

Even without making many jokes, Tommy Lee Jones is hilarious as the voice of the smilingly evil Commando, Chip Hazard. He’s in that fast-talking mode of his which becomes funny just from rhythm (“You are the best! Of the best! Of the few! And the proud!”) And Langella’s Archer has the most dignity of any plastic figure I’ve ever seen in a film; that sounds like a joke or a put-down, but I don’t know how else to put it – he’s just good. (I really liked the Gorgonites.)

The behind-the-scenes details of Small Soldiers are fun for film fans. The Commandos are voiced by several actors from The Dirty Dozen. The Gorgonites get their voices from the cast of This Is Spinal Tap. The Barbie-like Gwendy dolls, who are transformed into shock troops by the commandos (in a scene referencing The Bride of Frankenstein, right down to Franz Waxman’s classic music for that film) are voiced by hip young actors Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci. And of course, there’s a parody of the Patton speech, with Hazard marching in front of an American flag puzzle and spouting several clichés mixed up in a funny bunch.

There are some structural problems, especially at the film’s start, making the film move just a little awkwardly. The pre-credits sequence doesn’t play like it’s leading up to any credits; I was actually surprised when the stars’ names began to appear, maybe 10 minutes into the movie. There’s a woman executive at Globotech who looks like she was part of a snipped subplot. And the two main storylines – Mohr and Cross trying to correct their mistakes while the kids battle the action figures – don’t come together smoothly. (The filmmakers reshot the finale – only weeks before co-star Phil Hartman died so sadly – but that part is fairly coherent. It’s other parts of the film that don’t come together all that well.)

Other threads seem hanging. In fact, throughout Small Soldiers we’re not told enough about any of the film’s characters. Why does Christy collect Gwendy dolls, when she’s established as not being an obvious fan of such stereotypically “girlish” toys? Did she get into them when she was younger and keep them for sentimental reasons? The film doesn’t tell us enough about her and her interests (we do learn she’s an X-Files fan) for us to get a coherent image of her. And Alan was expelled from two schools for being disruptive, but this is used mainly to show that his parents have trouble trusting him. The characters aren’t fleshed out as much as they deserve.

Still, Joe Dante works very well with young actors – I’m fond of his last feature film, 1993’s Matinee, which is about young movie fans in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis – and Dunst (an E.R. veteran) and Smith give good performances. They’re fresh-faced and likeable, and they get to save the day.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith has always responded well to the visual outlandishness of Dante’s films (I especially like Gremlins 2), and here he quotes as many military music clichés as can fit – “Taps,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Ride of the Valkyries” and his own Patton music. The score isn’t the best he’s done for Dante, but it’s still clever.

This action film for young teens is a bit of a feathered fish – kind of like most films from Joe Dante – but as long as you know that going in, you should enjoy it. And as always, any film is worthwhile if it stars Tommy Lee Jones.