July 10, 1998
SMALL SOLDIERS is an effects-driven, Spielberg-produced, released-on-July-10th sci-fi movie. But it’s about killer toys (or at least potentially killer toys?) and the hero is a kid and it’s not a CHILD’S PLAY movie (it’s rated PG-13) so I’m not sure it was really seen as a movie for adults. To me and surely many others who saw it the exciting thing was that it was directed by Joe Dante, who hadn’t had a film since MATINEE five years earlier. And with him and Spielberg doing a movie about a young man fighting out of control small things raising a ruckus in a small town, obviously everybody had visions of Gremlins chomping on their heads.
Alan (Gregory Smith, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN) is a maybe 14 year old kid who works at his dad (Kevin Dunn, MARKED FOR DEATH, also in GODZILLA, ALMOST HEROES and SNAKE EYES that summer)’s toy store, one of those ones that only sells wooden blocks and airplanes and shit, nothing based on cartoons or movies (so there’s not an anti-GODZILLA in-joke here). His dad actually has a specific “no war toys” policy. But one day his friend the delivery driver (Dick Miller, of course) has another store’s shipment of new high tech talking action figures called the Commando Elite. Alan thinks they would sell better than Lincoln Logs or whatever and convinces him to let him take a set.
What he doesn’t know, but we do, is that this new line from Heartland Toy Company was created under pressure from their new corporate overlords GloboTech Industries and rushed into production using computer chips originally created for the military. So these gung-ho soldier dolls can talk and move but also learn, and they really believe in their mission of destroying the monster dolls known as Gorgonites, led by the serene and peaceful Archer (voice of Frank Langella, BRAINSCAN), who befriends Alan when the Commando Elite escape their boxes, wreck the store and send the other Gorgonites into hiding.
This can’t just be about a kid trying to stop a toy war, so there’s also teenage awkwardness. The literal and figurative girl next door Christy (Kirsten Dunst, THE CROW: SALVATION) comes into the store, wants to buy a Commando Elite for her brother, and she’s nice so they sort of become friends even though she seems to be above his station socially. She helps him clean up the store and soon learns that they’re dealing with an army of artificially intelligent toys and then they’re in the shit together.
The toys are characters in their own right, maybe a little more developed than Gremlins, though less than, like, Woody and Buzz. The Commando Elite are led by Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones, THE PARK IS MINE) and the credits playfully point out that the rest are cast members from THE DIRTY DOZEN: George Kennedy, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, Clint Walker, plus Bruce Dern because Richard Jaeckel had just died and had to be replaced. I didn’t pick up on that at all, because they’re playing characters more along the lines of the Rambo cartoon – bloodthirsty muscleheads with names like Brick Bazooka, Butch Meathook and Kip Killigan. They all have dickish, slanted eyebrows. One has a mohawk.
I remember thinking these fictional toys were ugly, but accurate to the style of the era. This time around I thought their designs were more appealing than I remembered. They’re like a foot tall and very detailed sculpts, the commandos have similar but delineated personalities, and Archer is kind of a nature warrior fantasy character in the vein of AVATAR. I can see how these would be pretty cool to a kid (one younger than Alan, though. I wonder why they didn’t want the hero to be of toy-playing age?)
But when Archer finds the rest of his Gorgonites I remembered oh yeah, these are the ones that really suck. The bulbous Shrek-meets-Frankenstein’s-monster one, the trying-way-too-hard stitched-together cyborg hunchback one, and especially (oh jesus I hate looking at this one) the big smile, crazy eyes, dreadlocks thing named “Insaniac.” Please throw that one away. Do not donate to Goodwill. Melt it down. Nobody needs this one. Also, I don’t know which one it is but Wikipedia mentions one called “Stench: the gas-passing Gorgonite.”
They have wacky voices too but it’s cool that they’re voiced by the three members of Spinal Tap (also noted in the credits).
Unlike the Gremlins, who are basically anarchists or hedonists or tricksters, the Commando Elite are on a specific mission of “destroying the Gorgonite enemy.” According to their computer chips that’s the right thing to do. They escalate the battle by getting into the garage and using power tools as weapons. They drug Christy’s parents, played by Phil Hartman and Wendy Schaal. (After the credits there’s an outtake and a dedication to Hartman, who had died on May 28th.)
It’s one of those movies where the far-fetched premise is easy to accept, but the basic reality that’s supposed to ground it feels a little too far off. Like, okay, high tech toys malfunction and fight a battle – no problem. But the kid who runs a family toy store is friends with the delivery truck driver and he stops to hang out in the middle of his route and lets him open up and play with some expensive new toys destined for a different store, even before he’s talked into letting him steal a shipment of them and pay him back later? I hate stuff like that. Make the normal life parts seem accurate. Most people watching have experience in normal life.
The effects by Stan Winston are very impressive though. I thought it was amazing how photo-realistic they looked in most shots, and it turns out (like JURASSIC PARK) this is partly because they’re using some puppets. A vintage featurette on the DVD shows how even in many shots where they’re walking around they’re being controlled by teams of puppeteers (rods later erased). Of course there’s also plenty of ILM animation in big action moments like a soldier dragging from Alan’s bike (I feel like he would’ve noticed), and Dante has said in interviews that they ended up using CG about two thirds of the time.
There’s some routine business about the kids having to solve the problem by themselves because no one would believe them, and eventually the adults discover that they’re telling the truth when their house is under siege. It’s kind of weird to have this movie competing with the size-oriented spectacle movies of the summer when this is as dramatic as it gets. It literally takes place in… well, not the backyard. Mostly the front yard. I like Alan’s mom (Ann Magnuson, TEQUILA SUNRISE) hitting firebombs back with a tennis racket. Also there’s a good moment where Christy shows up on a rider mower and chops up some commandos.
The screenplay is credited to Gavin Scott (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), Adam Rifkin (THE LAST MOVIE STAR) and the team of Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (ALADDIN), who will have another Summer of ’98 movie, THE MASK OF ZORRO. Reportedly Spielberg’s sister Anne (BIG) also worked on it, but was not credited. To me Rifkin is the most interesting name on there, because this is a guy who had directed movies like THE INVISIBLE MANIAC, THE DARK BACKWARD and PSYCHO COP RETURNS. As a director his most mainstream movie up until that point had been THE CHASE, but he had started having some success as a screenwriter, including for Gore Verbinski’s first film, MOUSEHUNT.
Dante is a deservingly beloved director, mainly because of GREMLINS and its sequel, but also PIRANHA, THE HOWLING, his part of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, EXPLORERS, INNERSPACE, THE ‘BURBS and MATINEE, and his status as a sort of ambassador of the “monster kid” generation and the Roger Corman alumni through interviews and Trailers From Hell. He’s kind of an old fashioned movie nerd from the days when Universal Monsters were Star Wars, and there’s definitely something square about his sensibilities. Look at Billy in GREMLINS, Ben in EXPLORERS, or this kid here – so many of his heroes are kind of the blandly regular surburban kid, not a total nerd but definitely not a cool kid. We’re told that Alan is a troublemaker who has been kicked out of multiple schools, and in a deleted scene he gets threatened by a teacher for pulling a water fountain related prank, but it doesn’t really feel believable. This kid seems so vanilla.
Christy of course has that nice girl charm that Dunst is so good at, and I like that they try to make her a little unpredictable by saying she’s into Led Zeppelin and having her complain about a TV show that everybody else likes, but I’m not sure she sells it. And I always kinda hated this type of story where the wimpy hero wins over the popular girl from a cool guy boyfriend (Jonathan Bouck, PARENTHOOD) even if it’s funny that said boyfriend runs away from toys and gets set on fire and has to take his pants off. It’s just too on-the-nose-wish-fulfillment for a little boy mentality, and as time goes on it seems more and more like a bad idea to give future “nice guy”s those expectations.
Whereas the town in GREMLINS had an exaggerated Frank Capra charm (all the better to be terrorized by the little bastards), and the one in EXPLORERS was a boring place to escape from, and the one in THE ‘BURBS was meant to show the fear of evil lurking behind a facade of plainness, this one is just kind of a generic place where a family TV show might take place. It doesn’t have a good look to it or feel true-to-life enough to be relatable.
But I think there’s a subtle subversive streak underneath this flavorlessness. At least subtle compared to Dante’s anti-war Masters of Horror episode HOMECOMING. The greed of the corporate behemoth behind these toys is broad and obvious. The moral lesson of Alan causing all this trouble by violating his dad’s no-war-toys rule in an attempt to make more money is fairly standard. But I like the idea that the “Commando Elite” toys, intended as good guys, are a threat just by virtue of their programming, following their concept through to its logical conclusion. That chip sees those muscles and those guns and it knows what to do.
And though the Gorgonites are intended by their designer (David Cross, DR. DOLITTLE 2) to be good guys, the crass CEO (Denis Leary, WHO’S THE MAN?) designates them bad guys just because they’re monsters. Their true nature comes through, though. Obviously Dante is gonna side with the monsters.
I suppose it goes without saying that they made a bunch of toys based on SMALL SOLDIERS. Most of them were smaller and less dangerous than the ones in the movie. According to Dante, the studio had first wanted an “edgy movie for teens,” but then pressured him to make it more kiddy and cut out some action at the last minute. The Hollywood Reporter hollywood reported that Burger King executives were furious when they found out this movie they made 25 million kid’s meal toys of had been rated PG-13. They’d never done that before, so they had to rework their advertising and include a disclaimer that said “While toys are suitable for children of all ages, the movie Small Soldiers may contain material that is inappropriate for younger children.”
In his essay At War with Cultural Violence: The Critical Reception of SMALL SOLDIERS, Jonathan Rosenbaum (who compares the movie to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, released two weeks later) wrote, “The essential auteur of SMALL SOLDIERS was perceived by many American spectators to be Burger King, a not-unreasonable assumption given the ﬁlm’s promotional tie-in deals, not to mention the fact that, as I eventually discovered from Dante himself, Burger King had the ﬁnal cut.”
Like GODZILLA and ARMAGEDDON, SMALL SOLDIERS also had an album. But theirs was more in the tradition of JUDGMENT NIGHT, because (with the exception of Edwin Starr’s original version of “War”) they all combine rappers with classic rock songs. For example they have a “War” cover by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Henry Rollins, Tom Morello and Flea, and “Love is a Battlefield” by Pat Benatar, Queen Latifah and DJ Kay Gee.
What the fuck? I had no idea, but apparently it has The Pretenders doing “My City Was Gone” with Kool Keith. That’s pretty representative of this movie’s mix of cool and odd and not necessarily great.
1998 stuff: Bonding over their mutual hatred of a saccharine mainstream show called Family of Five, Alan says he’s “more of an X-Files guy” and Christy says “Ah, the truth is out there.” (Which is how a dad trying to show that he’s hip would respond in my opinion but no judgment, she seems nice.) So both this and CAN’T HARDLY WAIT have characters who love The X-Files during the summer when the X-FILES movie came out. In this case it might be a detail meant to explain why he’s quick to understand this crazy thing is happening (along with his “QUESTION REALITY” bumper sticker).
Archer uses Alan’s computer to learn about the world, and he calls Alan “The Keeper of the Encarta.” Hooray for CD-ROMs.
“Wannabe” by Spice Girls plays at one point.
Though there’s not a reference in the movie itself, the making-of featurette (like so many other things this summer) plays off of GODZILLA’s tagline:
I was surprised to notice that Christina Ricci, already seen this summer in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, THE OPPOSITE OF SEX and BUFFALO ’66, voices some of the off-brand-Barbie-type dolls that Christy collects and that get Frankensteined to life in mutilated versions which are kind of fun but have you ever seen the movie TOY STORY because I have and it did the same shit but better. The other ones are voiced by Sarah Michelle Buffy the Vampire Slayer Gellar.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.