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When Size Doesn't Matter

In Joe Dante's 'Small Soldiers,' digitally created pint-size warriors run amok. Giving them some heart was the real challenge.

July 05, 1998|David Chute | David Chute is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Some people who love movies regard the rapid progress of special effects technology over the past decade as a threat to the medium's very soul. And when you see a picture like "Godzilla," it's tough to disagree. Are some high-tech movies getting made now simply because they can be? Almost certainly. But is it inherently impossible to make a soulful film that pulls out all the stops, technologically speaking?

Joe Dante is a filmmaker better equipped than most to ponder such weighty issues. His newest high-tech special-effects picture, "Small Soldiers," is due in theaters July 10, a major undertaking involving antagonistic squads of toy action figures, the brush-cut militant Commandos and their "monster" foes, the Gorgonites, that come to life and duke it out. Dante has operated dangerously close to the cutting edge of SFX evolution for almost 20 years, and he hasn't lost his soul yet.

Dante's very first solo directorial effort, for mentor Roger Corman, was the $600,000 1978 "Piranha." The state of the art would soon be redefined by the youthful effects crew that cut their teeth on that film: Jon Berg ("Return of the Jedi"), Chris Walas ("The Fly"), Phil Tippett ("Starship Troopers"), and Rob Bottin ("Seven"). Subsequent Joe Dante projects included "The Howling" (1978), "Twilight Zone: The Movie" (1982), "Gremlins" (1984), "Explorers" (1985) to "Innerspace" (1987), SFX extravaganzas all.

Even by Dante's standards, though, DreamWorks' "Small Soldiers" is a prodigious challenge, the most ambitious exercise of digital computer graphic imaging (CGI) animation ever undertaken by the wizards of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the most experienced and highly rated visual effects outfit in the industry.

It didn't make the job any easier, really, that the figures are supposedly only 12 inches high, lethal toys accidentally outfitted with adaptive military computer chips. On the big screen, everyone (and everything) is larger than life-size.

"Small Soldiers" is clearly a movie that is being made at least partly because it can be. "I'm sure it couldn't have been made this way even five years ago," Dante agrees. "The technology just didn't exist." The crucial question of course, is whether the new tools are being used to enhance a project that is worth doing for other reasons.

"Small Soldiers" could be a better bet than most. Joe Dante's sensibility is just about perfectly adapted to making something engaging and amusing, even emotionally involving, out of toy-box projects. He loves movie trickery and has consistently made witty and expressive use of it. Even from the few available snippets of "Soldiers" footage, it's clear that he has contributed his distinctive brand of visual self satire, a film style that has been described as "cartoon surrealism." Dante is a master caricaturist of glossy pop-suburban Americana. As one critic observed, "He seems to make his movies and the Mad magazine parodies of them at the same time."

Besides, even the movie's premise raises questions about giving high-technology a soul infusion. The title creatures are machines that achieve a form of sentience, struggling over the course of the film to approximate human consciousness. For Dante, "The fun of the picture is watching these characters gain personality."

"Small Soldiers," in fact, could be called the dark side of "Toy Story." These are toys that turn upon their creators, with extreme prejudice.

The transformation occurs when a toy company is absorbed in a hostile take-over by a munitions firm specializing in computerized "smart" weapons, and the divisional wires accidentally get crossed. The result is two rival groups of supposed playthings driven by military software.

"No matter what gets in their way," Dante says, "all the Commandos want to do is destroy the Gorgonites. And when human beings become allies of the Gorgonites, they also have to be wiped out."

Even when they were just plain toys, the Gorgonites were the ultimate underdogs: they had been programmed to lose. "It was determined by the toy company," Dante explains, "that the Commandos would be much more attractive heroes if they always won, so they needed an enemy that always lost. The idea is that by overcoming this internal obstacle, as well as all the obvious external ones, the Gorgonites gain courage, like the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz."'

The humans caught in the middle of this conflict include a couple of suburban teenagers, played by Gregory Lewis Smith (Sport in "Harriet the Spy") and Kirsten Dunst, and their befuddled parents: his are Kevin Dunn and Ann Magnuson, hers Wendy Schall and the late Phil Hartman.

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