When Joe Dante first started directing, he made two above average B movies, Piranha and The Howling. Run through with Dante's enthusiasm for the horror/SF genre, they make numerous references and in-jokes to other films of the genre. Then in 1984, he had a huge hit with Gremlins, one of the finest comedies of the 80s.
But sadly, every other film he's made since has performed poorly at the box office. That's not to say he's a terrible director. I think he's one of the world's most underrated filmmakers, having produced gems like Matinée, The burbs, Explorers. And the marvellous TV series Eerie Indiana.
With Small Soldiers, Dante has sort of remade Gremlins, where another small all-American town comes under attack. But not from little monsters. From toys fitted with military microchips that go berserk. Small Soldiers never feels as satisfying as Gremlins. There was something tremendously entertaining in watching a sleepy, sugary wholesome town get torn to shreds by malicious monsters. But Small Soldiers is still entertaining, and just as subversive as you'd expect from Joe Dante.
Gil Mars (the fast-talking Denis Leary) is the conglomerate of Globotech Industries. Having just recently bought Hartland Play Systems, a toy company, he is looking to market toys that actually do what they do in the adverts. Toys that can walk, talk and even think for themselves. He gets his chance when two of his employees come up with the Commando Elite, soldier toys programmed to crush their enemies, the Gorgonites.
The leader of the Commando Elite, Major Chip Hazard (perfectly voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) is fitted with a special microchip that came from the Department of Defence. Along with the rest of his troops, they actually believe they're in a real war, and when they're shipped to the town of Winslow Corners with the Gorgonites, led by the passive Archer (a dignified performance by Frank Langella) all hell breaks loose!
The Gorgonites end up in the care of Alan Abernathy, a delinquent with a reputation for being a troublemaker. With the help of his next door neighbour Christy (Kirsten Dunst), they get caught up in the war between the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites, which leads to full-scale warfare within Alan's home.
Small Soldiers was criticised for being too violent for a kids film. I'm not sure if such a thing is possible in this day and age of desensitisation. And while it is violent on a comic level, the humour is never as dark as Gremlins. That film was occasionally disturbing, but Small Soldiers never crosses the line into outright bloodshed.
There is quite an eclectic list of actors providing the voice-work. Tommy Lee Jones has the perfect voice for Major Chip Hazard, who has down pat what it takes to be a drill instructor. The rest of the Commando Elite are provided by the Dirty Dozen, and make a motley crew of hardasses.
Frank Langella makes Archer into a very likable character, and his friendship with Alan is handled well without being too mawkish. An added treat is the Gorgonites are voiced by Spinal Tap, making Small Soldiers one of the best voiced animated films ever made.
But as entertaining as the film is, it never reaches the anarchic heights of Gremlins. It seems too watered down. Except for one scene that is inspired in its subversiveness. Christy is held hostage by a group of Barbie-like dolls that have been malformed, twisted and altered beyond recognition until they become insane freaks drafted into the Commando Elite. Voiced wonderfully by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci, that scene will stay with you long after the film is over.
Dante also makes some very funny satirical observations over the toy industry and corporate politics, from the Stepford-like receptionists who work for Globotech, to the way they frown upon educational toys.
But in some ways, although Small Soldiers never gets as chaotic as Gremlins, it borrows a little too heavily from it. There are scenes lifted right from it. Like a kitchen scene where Archer is nearly put in a disposal, bursting through garage doors, even the soldiers being wiped out leaving only Major Chip Hazard alive. Dante puts a new spin on the events, but it does show a slight lack of imagination on his part.
The human cast are capably played by some good actors, including some from Dante's stock company, like Dick Miller and Robert Picardo, and a final performance from the late Phil Hartman. There are also numerous references to other war movies. So look out for affectionate nods to Patton, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now.
It's doubtful Small Soldiers will be remembered in 20 years like Gremlins. But it's still above average entertainment, the special effects work is superb, and it's interesting to watch films like Toy Story with their gentle ideals be subverted in whole new directions to create a film like Small Soldiers.
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