Small Soldiers

Small Soldiers (1998)
Dreamworks Home Entertainment
Cast: Denis Leary, Gregory Smith, Phil Hartman
Extras: Behind-The-Scenes” Footage, Bloopers and Deleted Scenes, Cast&Crew Bios, Production Notes, Theatrical Trailers

Dreamworks Home Video have finally come around to also release their first films on DVD, as the last of the Hollywood holdouts. One of their first titles released is "Small Soldiers", a highly acclaimed family film, boasting some spectacular special effects. Dreamworks decided to give "Small Soldiers" a Special Edition treatment, in, what they call, a "Signature Selection", and the first overall impression of the disc and the packaging is extremely good. Very much resembling the presentation of Universal’s releases, the back of the package reveals all the details of the disc in a clear manner. It also lures the reader with the many special features he can expect on the disc – although an error incorrectly labels the disc as being "double sided", when in fact, and to our pleasure, it turns out to be <$RSDL,dual layer>ed.

Globotech is a mega-corporation that becomes active in any field, if its president Gil Mars (Denis Leary) sniffs money to be made. One day he decides to buy a small, run-down toy company and asks his designers to come up with action figures that actually live up to their promise. He wants toys that talk, walk, react and most importantly, he wants them to take action. Within three months the toys are ready to ship, leaving hardly enough time to fully test the products. Built from a surplus of hi-end superscalar computerchips, the designers create two opposing, battling races, the "Commando Elite", a rugged military unit led by Major Chip Hazard, and the "Gorgonites", a bunch of friendly, peace-loving monsterlike creatures.

As soon as these toys land on the shelves of a small-town toy store, and in the hands of Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), the battle is unleashed. Major Hazard doesn’t waste a minute and immediately sets up his troops to fight and eliminate the Gorgonites and everyone who is supposedly allied with them. Powered by one of the most sophisticated, learning computerchips, taken directly from the vaults of Globotech’s military research branch, the toys learn quickly and adapt effortlessly to their new environment. Within hours, the likeable action figures become a deadly threat to everyone who crosses their paths.

"Small Soldiers" is a very entertaining and funny film, although it is not as "tight" as films like "Toy Story" for example. Nevertheless it delivers a good and interesting story, a variety of interesting characters, and of course, the titular small toy soldiers, brought to live by a vast number of talented puppeteers and the computer graphic magicians at ILM. The design of the actual toys has been masterfully done with visible, minor imperfections, just as you would see them on real production line toys. The animation of the figures is superb and once again, perfectly captures the look and feel you would expect from such animated plastic toys. Although a much larger portion of the film was originally designed to be shot with cable operated puppets, the shots became so complex that hiding all five puppeteers, that were needed to operate them, turned out to be impossible. As a result the wizards at Stan Winston’s Creature Shop created a number of completely self-contained twelve inches tall puppets for the elaborate shots of the film. Spiced up with computer generated and enhanced images by "Industrial Light and Magic", and the top notch voice cast consisting of Hollywood elite actors like Tommy Lee Jones and Frank Langella, the characters in the film take on believable personae and make the film a memorable Battle of the Toys. Although not always completely logical, the plot takes some interesting twists and the way Major Hazard runs rampant in the real world is nothing short of breathtaking at times. Everything is presented in a rather humorous fashion, which overall makes "Small Soldiers" a great, colorful and furious family movie.

This disc presents "Small Soldiers" in a 2.25:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio. Shot in Super 35, director Joe Dante decided to open the matte slightly and show more picture information than at the more commonly used 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The <$RSDL,RSDL> disc contains a meticulously clean <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer of the film that is boasting with detail and color. The increased resolution of the <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer brings out even the slightest details in the elaborate photography and the excellent compression done on the film material allows us to see plenty of detail, even in dimly lit scenes with plenty of shadow. The film’s black level is perfect and colors are strong with vibrant hues and absolutely natural fleshtones, without <$pixelation,pixelation> or noise. Once again you can see that Dreamworks were very concerned about making sure their entry in the DVD market is done right. Presented as a Signature Selection, "Small Soldiers" also contains a number of bonus materials, like behind the scenes footage, a blooper reel and a few deleted scenes from the cutting room floor, as well as production notes, cast & crew biographies and a number of trailers for the film.

The disc’s <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack is also a great testimony to Dreamworks’ consideration and proper technical evaluation of the format before entering the market. The mix is active and highly directional at times, but never distracting. With good bass extension, this soundtrack is rich, lively and very dynamic, just as you would expect from an active film like this. Legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith has contributed his touch to the film in the form of a great, mostly orchestral music score. Goldsmith is never afraid of venturing new territory or daring new things and as such, he makes good use of popular music as part of the overall sonic experience. Sprinkling in music by Led Zepplin and Pat Benatar, the filmmakers even went so far as to use a song of the Spice Girls in a riotous scene where Hazard’s troops exercise a little psychological warfare on their enemies. Personally however, I do not think either Led Zepplin or Benatar adequately represent the music taste of any of today’s teenagers. The music clips made it in the film probably more as a cameo for the filmmakers’ preferences, but I was pleasantly surprised how well the tunes worked within the film’s context. Goldsmith paid a lot of attention to this soundtrack and quite a few aural allusions to classic movies, such as "Apocalypse Now" or "Platoon", made their way in this work, seamlessly blending in with the overall score.

The disc contains complete dubs in English, French and Spanish, as well as English, French and Spanish subtitles. This strong language support is especially notable in a time where many publishers actually cut back on the number of languages they feature in their DVD releases.

Overall, Dreamworks’ first entry in the DVD business has turned out a great one. The disc really leaves nothing to be desired, and with a bang, Dreamworks also throw a large number of supplements in the mix, to make sure people can see their determination in releasing quality product. One might consider the lack of a <$commentary,commentary track> as a bit of a disappointment in the face of a Special Edition release, but overall, the quality level of this release is absolutely fantastic. Unlike other publishers who have struggled quite a bit with their initial DVD releases, Dreamworks got their first batch absolutely right. "Small Soldiers" is a release you should take a look at, if you want some action- and fun-packed adventure that is suitable for the whole family. In the meanwhile, I can’t wait to see more of Dreamworks’ releases making their way to DVD.