This week marks the 20th anniversary of a film about toys coming to life. No, not the Pixar one, the film where the toys try to murder an entire family – Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers. Having made a career for turning B movies into mainstream successes like Gremlins, The ‘Burbs and Matinee, Joe Dante turned back to small and cute puppets wreaking havoc for a film that is too dark and violent for kids, yet it was sold as a kid’s movie complete with Burger King tie-ins.
A toy company is being sold to a huge defense contractor called Globotech. The CEO of the giant corporation, Gil Mars (Denis Leary), is approached by one of the company’s lead toy designers, the nerdy and idealistic Irwin (David Cross), who wants to make educational toys in the form of benign and noble monsters he calls Gorgonites. Irwin’s colleague Larry (Jay Mohr) pitches his line of miniature Schwarzeneggers and Van Dammes he calls the Commando Elite. Irwin protests the violence of these figures, but Mars scoffs at the notion (“Don’t call it violence – call it action. Kids love action” he says) and mixes the two so that the commandoes are the heroes and the Gorgonites their enemies and targets. In order to make the toys behave like in the commercials, Larry accidentally orders state of the art weaponized microchips from the Defense Department that turn the G.I. Joes into little Terminators.
The emphasis on technology and its role in everyday life sets Small Soldiers apart from other movies aimed at kids. This is best exemplified by Phil Hartman’s character Phil Fimple, a man obsessed with having the newest and best technology available. When we first meet Phil, he’s about to chop down his neighbor’s tree just because it’s in the way of his new satellite dish. “You’re already pulling so much juice, you’ve got us living in a cancer node!” The film shows how integrated technology is in our lives and how people would rather deal with machines than with other humans, which is also explored through a scene in which our human hero, Alan (Gregory Smith) tries calling the toy company’s customer service to complain about the murderous toys but asks to be transferred to a machine instead of talking to a person. The fact that we have only grown more dependent on technology in the last 20 years is a testament to the themes tackled by this film. Most of Hartman’s lines are devoted to him lamenting the destruction of his satellite dish, big TV and sound system once the toys start trying to kill them. The film never wastes a moment to showcase the peak of '90s technology, as we see personal computers, headsets, and cordless phones in every other scene, as well as 3D printing, showing how people are quick to run towards the next big thing because “new means better”.
The film satirizes not only the toy industry, but also corporations, warmongering, and our own everyday cultural violence. In the very first scene of the movie, we hear that Globotech is a military company, but is also getting into telecommunications, food, and now toys. When a delivery man for Globotech ominously predicts that “pretty soon everything in the world is going to be owned by one giant corporation”, it rings even truer now than it did 20 years ago. If there’s anything worse than corporations in the eyes of Small Soldiers, it’s the military-industrial complex and our relationship with violence.
From the start of the film, we see a struggle in the use of violence to sell toys, as David Cross’ character would rather sell educational toys instead of violent action figures. When Alan brings the toys to his father’s toy shop to sell them, he does so in secret because his dad doesn’t like war toys. Then his neighbor, Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst), swings by looking for a present for her brother and says he’s into “Dinosaurs, mutant freaks. Anything that maims, kills or destroys.” The Gorgonites are not only technologically inferior to the Commando Elite, they are a ragtag group of indigenous aliens looking for their lost home, while the commandos want to kill them for no discernible reason. When the film inevitably reaches its third act showdown, Dante shows as much carnage as he can get away with to illustrate how pointless and senseless war is. We get toys electrocuted to death, decapitated, Barbie dolls being destroyed via lawn mower, and enough dismemberments to rival Star Wars. Joe Dante always fits call-backs and references in his films, and this is no exception, from a "Ride of the Valkyries" call-back and the leader of the Commando Elites proclaiming, “I love the smell of polyurethane in the morning” like in Apocalypse Now, to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Sgt. Elias’ death scene in Platoon, and my personal favourite: “All quiet on the Western front yard!” Dante not only parodies The Dirty Dozen, but also employs members of its cast to voice the commandos – and then for good measure has three members of This is Spinal Tap voice the Gorgonites.
Small Soldiers may have been overshadowed by Toy Story’s success and a sudden change in tone mandated by sponsors, but 20 years later it remains a highly entertaining satire about war and the dangers of technology that works as a B-movie with outstanding special effects and puppetry that left children all over the world disappointed that their action figures didn’t move and talk like the characters in the film.