‘Declare your allegiance’
Small Soldiers is a 1998 American science-fiction comedy feature film about toy action figures that are programmed to genuinely do battle.
Directed by Joe Dante from a screenplay co-written by Gavin Scott, Adam Rifkin, Ted Elliott, Zack Penn and Terry Rossio. Starring Kevin Dunn, Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, Dick Miller and the voices of Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Langella, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, Bruce Dern, George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci.
A giant American corporation in the toy-manufacturing business delivers a shipment of prototype high-tech toy soldier action-figures to a small shop in the suburbs.
The owner’s son (Kevin Dunn) is the first to discover their terrible flaw: the robot dolls are programmed with military-computer chips and hardwired to exterminate their enemies, another set of dolls who are grotesque monsters on the outside but actually harmless and timid. The mini-commandoes stage missions of destruction throughout the boy’s house overrun household.
In the 1970s while working for Roger Corman, Joe Dante directed Piranha, a genuine cult classic which won benediction from Steven Spielberg himself as the one Jaws rip-off that was any good. One could only hope, twenty years later, that with the release of Dante’s much bigger-budgeted Small Soldiers (this time via Dreamworks, the super-studio co-founded by Spielberg), a few of the talents behind Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story were similarly appreciative of Dante‘s clever tribute/takedown of their blockbuster family-feature franchise.
Globotech, a multileveled, multinational corporation, has added toy division to its bulk. In a lengthy pre-credit prologue, idealistic young designers see their ideas go into the company meatgrinder and emerge transformed: Globotech’s blockbuster new plaything concept will be hyperaggressive robotic military action-figures called the Commando Elite, programmed to literally punch their way out of their packaging and exterminate their sworn enemy, the basically benign but grotesque-looking alien `Gorgonites.’
A lorry of Commando Elite and Gorgonite prototypes arrive at a suburban Ohio toy store. The owner’s adolescent son Stuart (Kevin Dunn, an understated and likeable juvenile lead) takes in the kitschy robot dolls and strikes up a friendship with Archer, the inquisitive mini-monster who is the de facto leader of the Gorgonites.
But there’s a problem, which Dante, typically, underscores with clips of Universal’s Frankenstein (1931). One of the designers dipped into Globotech’s military R&D surplus. Power cells and PC chips in the toys are actually tiny combat microprocessors, with a capacity to adapt and learn.
So, when Commando Elite commander Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) activates and rallies his foot-tall foot soldiers (a la George C. Scott in Patton) it’s a war for real against the shy Gorgonites – whom Stuart allies with, much against the mythos of the toy company’s concept. The boy’s block becomes a battleground for the tiny terrorists, who fabricate slapsticky yet devastating weapons out of household items.
Most of the abundant F/X here involve Stan Winston‘s mechanised, animatronic puppets. Dante had hoped to do the film entirely with actual automata, but CGI proved more viable (even with a $40 million US budget), and in the end, the filmmaker estimated it came down two-to-one in favour of computer graphics.
Aside from the action binges, Dante and his scriptwriting squadron (five credited writers, usually a bad sign) concoct a clever, fast-paced scenario, with nice breathing room between its over-the-top action, plus send-ups of everything from The Terminator to Apocalypse Now and Dante’s own Gremlins.
The voiceover casting for the toys, as with Pixar, is quite impressive. One-touch Dante leaves to the cognizant to figure out: Frank Langella, velvety as Archer, played the hideous Skeletor in the 1987 movie of… Mattel’s schlocky playset franchise He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
And kiddie patrons are supposed to cheer as Action Man lookalike Chip Hazard and his Schwarzenegger-muscled military heroes get routed – even as hints of genocide, Vietnam war crimes, Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Panama and corporate greed hit home for adult viewers. There’s a deliciously hideous bit about a girl doll collection that’s every Barbie-haters phobias come true.
While Pixar’s Toy Story indeed filled merchandise outlets with replicas of Buzz Lightyear and Cowboy Woody, a line of real-world toy spinoffs from Small Soldiers was created but are much harder to locate – fittingly, for an anti-corporate satire (a Dreamworks-produced videogame also existed). Plans in the 21st century to remake Small Soldiers, under the title “Toymageddon,” have so far come to nought.
Small Soldiers is dedicated to comic actor Phil Hartman, whose blowhard bit as Stuart’s gadget-crazed neighbour is actually less fun than expected. It may be relevant to know that offscreen the prolific sketch comedian and voiceover actor had been killed just two months before the premiere in a shocking murder-suicide by his Hollywood wife.
Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA
“There is too much of Gremlins in it, and fun and all as the scenes of the soldiers and the Gorgonite sidekicks running rampant are, they lack a certain vital imagination. There is only a single scene where Joe Dante seems to demonstrate the perverse undertow that fired much of Gremlins up…” Moria
” …Small Soldiers whilst obviously owing a lot to Joe Dante’s Gremlins is, in fact, a movie which takes it to the next level with a wide variety of humour to make it fun for all the family. The only thing it doesn’t have is the cute factor and is probably why Gremlins remains better known.” The Movie Scene
“The toys are presented as individuals who can think for themselves, and there are believable heroes and villains among them. For smaller children, this could be a terrifying experience. It’s rated PG-13, but if the characters were human the movie would be a hard “R,” just for the scene where characters get run over and chewed up by a lawnmower.” Roger Ebert
“Satirical jabs at films (Patton, Rambo), corporate “culture” and toy manufacturers (“What they call violence, I call action”) spice up Small Soldiers. With Joe Dante (Gremlins) in charge, the film has its own share of grotesquerie — one commando gets ground up in the garbage disposal and, my favorite, a band of girl dolls goes bad. It’s the Attack of the Killer Barbie Dolls.” San Francisco Chronicle
Cast and characters:
David Cross … Irwin Wayfair
Jay Mohr … Larry Benson
Alexandra Wilson … Ms. Kegel
Denis Leary … Gil Mars
Gregory Smith … Alan Abernathy
Dick Miller … Joe
Kirsten Dunst … Christy Fimple
Jacob Smith … Timmy Fimple
Jonathan Bouck … Brad (as Jonathan David Bouck)
Kevin Dunn … Stuart Abernathy
Ann Magnuson … Irene Abernathy
Wendy Schaal … Marion Fimple
Phil Hartman … Phil Fimple
Archie Hahn … Satellite Dish Installer
Robert Picardo … Ralph, Clean Room Technician
Julius Tennon … Toy World Supervisor
Belinda Balaski … Neighbour
Rance Howard … Husband
Jackie Joseph … Wife
Tommy Lee Jones … Chip Hazard (voice)
Frank Langella … Archer (voice)
Ernest Borgnine … Kip Killagin (voice)
Jim Brown … Butch Meathook (voice)
Bruce Dern … Link Static (voice)
George Kennedy … Brick Bazooka (voice)
Clint Walker … Nick Nitro (voice)
Christopher Guest … Slamfist / Scratch-It (voice)
Michael McKean … Insaniac / Freakenstein (voice)
Harry Shearer … Punch-It (voice)
Sarah Michelle Gellar … Gwendy Doll (voice)
Christina Ricci … Gwendy Doll (voice)
Marcia Mitzman Gaven … Globotech Announcer (voice)
Audio: DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS