Small Soldiers

There Will Be No Mercy: Taking the Toy Industry to Task in ‘Small Soldiers’

There is no one better than Joe Dante at sticking it to the Man and then leaning back and cackling as the Man continues on, utterly clueless to the fact that he has been stuck. This has happened so many times throughout his career. Piranha, Dante’s first major movie, was an explicit Jaws riff that made it clear that the filmmakers were explicitly aware of the fact, and seemed designed from the ground up to absolutely take the piss out of the fact that it was what it was. Then there’s Gremlins, a film that is produced by Steven Spielberg yet is in concept basically “What if E.T. ate Elliot and burned the town to the ground?” That movie is about taking a torch to picturesque Norman Rockwell Americana, a slight commentary on ‘80s toy culture and consumerism that, well, happened to spawn a lot of products. Even better, Dante then got to make his most overt satire of the studio, the corporate culture that led a movie like Gremlins to become the merchandising empire it became, and even poke fun at himself in the spectacularly irreverent and cartoonish Gremlins 2: The New Batch. With The ‘Burbs, Dante got to take suburbia to task —in a decade when they were easily the biggest audience being catered to and in which countless movies centred on upper-middle-class suburban families — with his hilarious dark comedy about paranoia and xenophobia. He is the absolute master of what he does. 

It was maybe never more obvious than in Small Soldiers, though. While it’s not usually mentioned in the same breath as Dante classics like Gremlins or The Howling or even Matinee, it’s one of my personal favourites. This is Dante firing on all cylinders, echoing the gleeful mayhem of Gremlins, but through a totally different lens. This has a very clear, specific perspective in the things that it is satirizing and it is also very much a blockbuster for the ‘90s. These are things that Dante appears to have been aware of and, as always, certainly seemed to have fun with. I distinctly remember what an event the movie was when it came out. I first learned of its existence in the most appropriate way possible, while browsing the toy aisle at long-extinct department store Ames and coming across Brick Bazooka of the Commando Elite. I had no idea what Small Soldiers was, but I thought that enormous beefcake of a soldier looked cool as hell and I liked his style. Given the entire plot and point of the movie, I think that is genuinely hilarious in retrospect. 

In short, Small Soldiers is about a bunch of toys, rival figures hot off the assembly line, that contain experimental military processing chips, originally designed for guided missiles, that cause them to come to life and act out the roles they were designed to play. The Gorgonites are monstrous looking creatures with individual appearances, designed to to help kids learn by teaching their toys—imagined as alien visitors to our planet—about Earth’s culture, history and environment. Believing that no kid wants a toy that could contain some educational value, they are repurposed as fodder for the other toy line, the Commando Elite, to kill. The Commandoes, they all have a bit more of a uniform look, they’ve got all the weapons kids want, they’re led by Major Chip Hazard and their mission is much simpler: to kick ass. And of course seed the idea of military recruitment into a young child’s mind, naturally. 

The hook is already pretty great, because the odds are completely stacked to one side. With one batch of toys being harmless explorers and the other being bloodthirsty war criminals for kids, the audience is immediately engaged in how in the hell toys designed to be pacifist are going to survive toys designed solely to kill. The voice casting absolutely crushes this difference in ideologies, having the calm, soothing, thoughtful voice of Frank Langella as Archer, leader of the Gorgonites and professional hard ass Tommy Lee Jones as Major Chip Hazard. In general, it’s stunning how what would normally be a director’s note saying “I’d like the Commandoes to sound like The Dirty Dozen and the Gorgonites to sound like Spinal Tap” actually led to those characters being voiced by the actual cast members of The Dirty Dozen and This is Spinal Tap.

Like Gremlins, this is about a small town being absolutely wrecked by little monsters. And, like Gremlins, this reimagines a toy craze as something destructive, so I do get why the two films are often compared, but they are definitely distinct unto themselves. First of all, Gremlins was about many things, it dismantled everything from holiday commercialism to the xenophobic obsession with American-made products. It was also about a particular kind of toy craze, things like Cabbage Patch and Teddy Ruxpin, basically asking “what if your lovable plush buddy could turn vicious?” Small Soldiers is about a very different kind of toy industry, and is much more singularly focused on that. This is a movie taking the ‘90s action figure craze to task and having an absolute blast while doing it. This imagines the destructive capabilities if your gajillion toys shooting plastic rockets had access to the real thing. It’s a fantastic concept. But it’s also about the disturbingly close relationship between the toy industry and the military industrial complex, especially at the time. 

The Commando Elite aren’t just designed to feed kids’ base primal instincts to kill and maim, they’re very obviously designed to instill an interest in the military at a young age. With these toys in particular, as is the very obvious point, the distinction between the toy and the military is eliminated. The line isn’t simply blurred, it’s completely erased, to the point that, at the end, the Commandoes are literally going to be designed for the military, exclusively. These figures are powered using experimental military technology that (shockingly) goes awry and nearly levels a small town. All of these ideas feel incredibly intentional, are genius to layer into a movie like this, and the credit for them absolutely is laid out in the original concept and script by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio, Gavin Scott, and Adam Rifkin. But there is not a single director on the planet who was more right for this project than Joe Dante. No one could have had a better grasp of not only the satire, but the tone and the wild nature of the film, from heartfelt moments of burgeoning teen romance to bombastic CGI spectacle. It even touches horror territory in a scene where the Commandoes bring a collection of Frankensteined Barbies to life, voiced by Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar. 

What’s truly spectacular about Small Soldiers, though, is the fact that, once again, the studio was absolutely not in on the joke. Even more than that, it’s the degree to which they weren’t in on the joke, more than any irreverent satire Dante had ever made before, even more than Gremlins. Universal saw a movie about toys and realized they could make toys out of that, so they did. Tons of them. The Gorgonites and the Commando Elite could go toe-to-toe in the home of any kid in America, even around the world. And I am positive that those playtimes looked a lot less like the way the fight unfolds in the movie, and a lot more like the way the Commandoes and Gorgonites were pitched in the film. Something tells me a lot of Gorgonites got knocked off furniture and out of windows by the Commandoes, with the kids grinning madly as they directed the action. That doesn’t negate any of the points Small Soldiers is trying to make, if anything it only makes the satire funnier. It didn’t stop with an action figure series, though. 

Small Soldiers also spawned a huge Burger King promotion. It got Happy Meal toys, which isn’t a shock, and some of them were pretty fun. But it also had a much bigger, more interesting, absolutely nonsensical tie-in promotion: the Rodeo Burger. This burger was, I’ll admit, one of the greatest disgusting fast food loves of my life. Topped with onion rings and barbecue sauce, it’s a value meal lost to time, though it remains valued in my heart it sought so hard to destroy. It’s also a burger that, even taking into account how much a burger could represent a film, has absolutely nothing to do with this movie. If anything, it’s cowboy themed. I mean, it’s right there in the name. Wouldn’t it have made sense for, I don’t know, Wild Wild West? That movie only came out one year later. Though, if it had meant one year deprived of the Rodeo Burger, I’m glad it didn’t. Despite that, it is a head-scratching promotion that I wouldn’t trade for anything, especially the commercials. Just as baffling as anything else in this partnership, the commercials featured Chip Hazard, still voiced by Tommy Lee Jones, in a parody of the military trial in A Few Good Men, culminating in him growling “You can’t handle the Rodeo Burger!” 

The movie also received a video game for PlayStation, which completely ignored the plot of the film to instead focus on the built-in mythology behind the toys themselves. In the game, you play as Archer with assist from some of the other Gorgonites as you defend your home planet from the invading Commandoes. It’s a bit of a wake up call to the fact that the toys themselves, speaking only to the in-context origin created for them, are basically living out the plot of Avatar. This game especially, as it deals with the evil military force invading a peaceful alien culture to pillage its resources, forcing the native race to fight back despite their nature. That’s not really given too much thought in the game, though, as it’s a pretty bare-bones beat ‘em up in which you’re less “Archer the pacifist” and more “Archer the deadly crossbow killer.” The game also featured a multiplayer mode in which you could play as either Archer or Chip Hazard to kill each other or play Capture the Flag. 

Each of these tie-ins spectacularly misses the point of the movie more than the last, and that’s kind of why I love them. They represent Dante doing what he does best: making an extremely obvious satire that is still somehow not obvious to the people who allowed him to make it. It is an absolute treat in that regard that it spawned so much. But even without the bonkers merchandise, Small Soldiers remains a personal favourite blockbuster, one that I’ve only truly come to appreciate as I’ve gotten older, even though I’ve always loved it. It is exactly as the tagline says, a “Big Movie.” It certainly was when I was a kid, both in terms of seeing it opening weekend, enamoured by its poster in the theatre window, to growing up with it as it proved to be one of those foundational films. And even though it’s rarely spoken of in the same breath as Dante’s biggest heavy hitters, it is undoubtedly one of them.

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