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Joe Dante's biggest hit (1984) to date, in which cuddly Spielbergian pets turn into vicious beasties, led Dave Kehr to conclude, “Dante is perhaps the first filmmaker since Frank Tashlin to base his style on the formal free-for-all of animated cartoons; he is also utterly heartless.” I agree with the first premise but not the second: Dante's subversive and occasionally unnerving high jinks with the processes of movie watching reveal not only a skepticism toward the media (and the reflexes of a passionate film buff) but also a profound respect for the viewer (amplified later by his “war trilogy” of Matinee, The Second Civil War, and Small Soldiers). What's confusing yet ultimately illuminating is the way his gremlins function as a free-floating metaphor, suggesting at separate junctures everything from teenagers to blacks to various Freudian suppressions. With Zach Galligan and Hoyt Axton. PG, 111 min.

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