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by Jim Wunderle

"Small Soldiers"

Directed by: Joe Dante

Starring: Denis Leary, Phil Hartman, Tommy Lee Jones

Rated: PG-13

Steven Spielberg is the epitome of the "high-concept" filmmaker. The storylines of such films can usually be summed up in one concise sentence. Take "Jaws," for example: "Fish terrorizes town." Or "E.T.": "Kids adopt alien."

It should come as no surprise that as Spielberg's new film company, DreamWorks Pictures, starts rolling out product, a lot of high-concept films will be on board.

"Small Soldiers" is one such film. Four words can aptly describe this movie: "'Toy Story' meets 'Gremlins.'"

Who better to realize this story for the screen than long-time Spielberg collaborator Joe Dante. Dante, a former animator, actually directed a few cult "classics" before coming under Spielberg's wing.

"The Howling" was a good "B" horror movie and "Piranha" is interesting, if only because it was written by the great independent filmmaker John Sayles.

Dante's biggest success came in 1984 with "Gremlins." This rather dark little fable led noted film critic Pauline Kael to remark that Dante "... has the freaked-out sensibility of a greeting card poet ..."

With "Small Soldiers," Dante goes back to familiar "Gremlins" territory. Spielberg, as executive producer, has left his mark, as well. While the setting is officially called Winslow Corners, it is easily recognizable as "Spielbergia, USA."

It's the same kind of place where "E.T." landed a small town that sees its fate squarely in the hands of a few brave adolescents. As "Small Soldiers" opens, we're introduced to mega-businessman Gil Mars, whose company has just acquired a small toy manufacturer.

He directs the toy makers to come up with something really fantastic, and since they now have unlimited resources, they do just that. The Commando Elite line of action figures is controlled by computer chips (Defense Department rejects) and are more lifelike than any toys anyone has ever seen. As Mars points out, though, every action hero needs an enemy.

Enter the Gorgonites, a line of (it turns out, rather sweet) monsters that are the targets of Commando rage.

As you might guess, something goes amiss. The Commandos are a little too lifelike and begin terrorizing Winslow Corners in their attempt to destroy the Gorgonites. We soon learn the Commandos are more than slightly psychotic, under leader Chip Hazard, and the Gorgonites are a peace-loving race of monsters that just want to be left alone.

In the middle of the action is Alan a kid whose dad owns a little toy store, and the object of his teen desires, Christy.

In the most bizarre plot device in the film, the Commandos get reinforcements by bringing to life some Barbie-type dolls who provide some of "Small Soldiers'" darker moments. The film deserves its PG-13 rating, and I'm afraid that some of the twisted action might be too frightening for the younger viewer.

The voice talent Dante hired is top-notch fun. Tommy Lee Jones is head jarhead Chip Hazard, and the other Commandos are voiced by Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Jim E. Brown and Clint Walker.

If that grouping sounds familiar, it's because all of these guys were members of "The Dirty Dozen."

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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