Today’s film, Small Soldiers, explores the idea of corporations imbuing children’s toys with modern technologies, without fully considering the implications. While this sounds like the plot of a great new sci-fi blockbuster, Small Soldiers is a nearly 20-year-old satirical look at the chaos of introducing advanced tech into the commercial marketplace; and it still holds up.
The film opens with Globotech Industries, a large defense technology corporation, taking over toy company Heartland Play Systems. At a pitch meeting for new toy lines (monsters called Gorgonites and soldiers known as the Commando Elite), Globotech CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary) suggests pitting the toys against one another, as well a putting microprocessors in them so they can actually walk and talk and fight.
A surplus of smart, military-grade microchips from Globotech are purchased, the toys are manufactured, and sent out.
Cut to small town Ohio where troubled teen Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith), acquires a set of the new toys (under-the-table) for his dad Stuart’s fledgling toy store while Stuart (Kevin Dunn) is away at a conference.
Alan is surprised to learn just how advanced the toys are after carrying on a formal conversation with Archer (voiced by Frank Langella), the peaceful leader of the Gorgonites. He is stunned when he finds his dad’s store ransacked after the Commando Elite, led by ruthless Major Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones), attempt to wipe out the Gorgonites.
Alan, his family, and neighbors soon find themselves caught in the middle of an all out war, as the ruthless Commando Elite stop at nothing to achieve their programming goal of defeating the Gorgonites, who simply want to return to their home planet.
Small Soldiers hinges on the special effects which bring to life the Gorgonites and Commandos. Surprisingly, even 19 years later, the CGI and puppetry by Stan Winston Studio is well executed and meshes better with live-action than many films that incorporate CGI today.
Reviews at the time wrote the film off as an effects showcase. But in an age where most theatrical films are laden with computerized special effects, the CGI in Small Soldiers seems modest.
The film is marked by a barrage of great one-liners from a legendary voice cast (Actors from The Dirty Dozen and This is Spinal Tap). A talented group of recognizable live actors range from an early, strong performance by Kirsten Dunst to the final film performance of the late SNL star Phil Hartman.
Being a Joe Dante-directed movie, the film is full of film and pop-culture references both subtle and blatant. While these references do tend to date Small Soldiers here and there, they make it a blast for film aficionados and children of the 90’s.
The final third of Small Soldiers, when the Commandos begin a violent, full-scale assault on the Abernathy house, is where the film really shines. The female characters are given the opportunity hold their own and in some cases rescue their more inept male counterparts. The action is non-stop, full of explosions, gadgets, and fireballs.
This point in the movie also takes advantage of a great soundtrack, mixing a range of 20th century pop hits with a powerful militaristic score by legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith.
Upon it’s release, Small Soldiers was unfavorably compared with Gremlins, primarily because both films were directed by Joe Dante. Indeed, the film contains many similar hallmarks: a small town, corporate and commercial satire, and cartoon-style violence.
What really sets Small Soldiers apart (and what many critics at the time failed to realize), is the emphasis on technology and the role it plays in everyday life. The fact that technology has only ingratiated itself more into our day-to-day is a testament to themes which this film chooses to tackle.
It is also thematically where Small Soldiers shows it weaknesses as a film. It’s hard to determine what stance, if any, the film takes regarding major themes such as war, violence, and smart technology. It’s multitude of characters represent different views on these themes, and they tend to pull each other further apart instead of cohering toward a concrete message.
But if one is viewing the film strictly for entertainment purposes (as most audiences do), this isn’t a real concern.
When I first decided to review Small Soldiers, I wasn’t fully aware of how increasingly relevant it had become. Once I did some research, I was surprised to discover a similar, recent case:
During the 2016 holiday season, a multinational tech corporation and defense contractor came under fire for developing children’s smart toys; with technology capable of collecting data from conversations (You can read more on that here.
Small Soldiers received a lukewarm reception upon it’s release in 1998, with major focus surrounding if such a violent, sardonic film about children’s toys was actually appropriate for the kids it was being marketed to. As it turns out, many of the issues critics had with the film then are the same things which make the film relevant and pertinent 19 years later.
Small Soldiers may not be a true kids film; but with all the action, CGI, and satire, it proves to be a relevant film which anyone living in the Millennial Generation could appreciate.
Small Soldiers is now streaming on Netflix.