Computers and everything related to them – have always been magical, mystical devices to Hollywood, being capable to do anything. Add Electricity to the mix, and suddenly, the impossible is possible. From creating life to global thermonuclear war, to enslaving all the humans in the Matrix, everything’s possible with the magical ingredient Computer.
Following that premise is Small Soldiers, a late 90’s film that’s part action, part satire, and part mayhem of the best kind.
So, what happens? Well, two toy designers are commissioned to make a new range of action figures, the Commando Elites, all-American, GI Soldier type “good guys”, and the “bad guys”, the Gorgonites, monstrous creature types. The nature of the commission, though, is that the toys can play back. To this end, both ranges are created as fully autonomous robots, powered by smart microchips designed by the toy-maker’s parent megacorporation’s Military Tech department, making them artificially intelligent.
When teenager Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), working in his father’s small town, traditional toy shop, acquires a shipment of both ranges, well, chaos ensues, as the artificially intelligent Commando Elites take their programming, to destroy the Gorgonites, rather literally, by building makeshift weapons. Meanwhile, the Gorgonites, originally programmed as educational toys, hide and learn about the real world, as they follow their programming to find their homeland, Gorgon, while slowly gaining the trust of Alan and his prospective love interest, Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst). As the Commando Elite’s methods go from extreme to extreme, humans are dragged into the ensuing fight for their lives, through a vehicle chase to an all-out battle of armed toys versus humans.
So, I hear you ask, why should you watch an hour and a half of toys fighting? Well, I guess I’ve told you the plot, now I can tell you why:
For one, despite being marketed as a kiddie-friendly movie, well, it’s not quite. No-one dies, that’s true (to quote George of the Jungle, “No-one dies in this movie. They just get big boo-boos”), but while the premise of toys as main characters leads to the inevitable tsunami of merchandising, it’s really not solely for kids. Coming from the mind of Joe Dante, in a similar vein to Gremlins, it’s no surprise that the plot can at times turn dark, with humans being threatened by nail-gun wielding toys and teenagers chased down streets with chainsaw-armed tanks.
For two, the references. You need a encyclopaedic knowledge of classic war and action films of the past fifty or so years to get them all – from the throwaway lines (two Commandos are patrolling the garden during the final battle. One says to the other “all quiet on the Western Front…yard”), to Major Chip Hazard’s Patton-esque speech in front of a jigsaw puzzle of the Stars and Stripes, which rolls every war movie speech gloriously into one.
For three, the satire, which this film oozes. Well, other than the above tongue-in-cheek references, Small Soldiers is loaded with satirical references to current military happenings of the time, which seem rather tame in our post 9/11 world. There’s Christy’s taped hostage message, complete with “I made this of my own free will”, the blasting of Spice Girls as a reference to the US tactics during the invasion of Panama, and the general escalation in the deviousness of military tactics in the cold war era and beyond.
So that should be enough to get the message along. No…?
Okay. Then, for four, the voice talent. I have to make clear that this is from before the time where animated movies were sold only on their voice talent. In case you need convincing of that, only the main Commando Elite, Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones) and Gorgonite, Archer (Frank Langella) were credited. The rest of the toys were not. So, why the mention? Because, well, the Commando Elites are voiced by none other than half of the Dirty Dozen, and the Gorgonites by Spinal Tap.
And if that’s not enough, Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself makes a vocal cameo as an army of sadistic Barbie dolls…
I’d give this film 3 out of 5 – the action scenes are amazing, the humour is subtle, but the plot is a little stale and hasn’t aged well.
D. Bruce Fraser (has seen some stuff, man, and things. He wouldn’t recommend it.)
Small Soldiers is available on DVD on Amazon.