Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, April 26, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1998) Part Two

15. Small Soldiers

Joe Dante might not have directed a true box office hit in a few years but having “Gremlins” on your resume clearly still meant something, even as late as 1998. That is pretty clearly the reason why Dante was recruited to direct “Small Soldiers,” another movie about a small town besieged by diminutive attackers. When Joe signed onto the film, he was told to deliver an edgy film for teenagers. Midway through production, the studio realized a movie about action figures had great merchandise opportunities. They demanded the project be rewritten to appeal to young kids. The result, a violent PG-13 film marketed to children, attracted some minor controversy. (Which is weird, because PG-13 movies way more intense than this had been marketed to kids, before and after.) I can't imagine it was a satisfying experience for the filmmaker.

Weapons manufacturer GloboTech Industries acquires the Heartland Toy company. CEO Gil Mars rejects a pitch for an educational series of monster toys called the Gorgonites. Instead, he approves a pitch for soldier toys called the Commando Elite and demands the toys be made as high-tech as possible. (The Gorgonites are cast as their enemies.) Toy designer Larry accidentally installs military defense computer chips in the toys. The resulting toys have self-aware artificial intelligence but are confined to their programming, meaning the Commando Elite are psychotically driven to exterminate the peaceful Gorgonites. An early shipment of the toys arrive in small town Ohio. Alan, the son of a toy shop owner, discovers how smart the Gorgonites are and how dangerous the Commandos are. Soon, the town becomes a miniature war zone.

In many ways, “Small Soldiers” is an ideal film for Joe Dante. The movie certainly continues his tendency to insert political subtext into his stories. “Small Soldiers” is ultimately a nasty satire about the way the military-industrial complex sells itself to children. The way CEO Mars dismisses the non-violent Gorgonites, in favor of the hyper-violent Commando Elite, is telling of corporate culture's anti-intellectualism. We already know the military has used pop culture for propaganda. The reason the kids in the film, like Alan or his love interest's little brother, think violent toys are cool is because that's what society has taught them. The Commandos being actual weapons sold to kid simply literalizes the idea that war, violence and death is made as attractive and clean to kids as possible, creating future recruits.

It's also pretty easy to see why “Small Soldiers” would appeal to Dante's sensibilities. Like many of his other films, “Small Soldiers” celebrates monsters. The Gorgonites are just monstrous in their appearance. They are also natural born outsiders, peaceful misfits in a world that is more accepting of the ultra-violent Commandos. And just like “Gremlins,” the small town is destroyed by these rampaging critters. The stately authorities of the small town – seen in upright symbols like the soldiers but also parents – are thoroughly mocked and torn down by the film's attitudes. The message has evolved, from destroying the suburbs out of an anarchic glee to destroying it because it's genuinely a force of monocultural homogeneity.

So “Small Soldiers” clearly has some interesting, and even subversive, ideas inside it. However, you can also see how “Small Soldiers” was retrofitted into a kiddie flick long after production started. The movie contains the kind of prosaic and generically feel-good-y moral you see in a lot of kid flicks. The Gorgonites are programmed to be cowards, in order to make the Commandos exterminating them easier. Throughout the course of the story, Archer and the Gorgonites learn to believe in themselves and stand up to the bullies... Which happen to be homicidal action figures trying to kill them. Weirdly, the movie does not connect the toys' strife with Alan going through something similar, so I guess it could've been sappier.

You can also see this insistence that “Small Soldiers” be appropriate for really young kids in its humor. Unlike the Looney Tunes-like comedy of the “Gremlins” movies, which tossed chaotic sight gags at the viewer, the gags in “Small Soldier” are a lot lamer. The Commandos toss out unimpressive one-liners, usually while getting smashed to pieces or attempting to attack someone. About the only joke that made me laugh was the expected "Patton" riff, which Jerry Goldsmith even incorporates into his score, where Elite Commando leader Chip Hazard tosses off a series of meaningless military platitudes. Otherwise the jokes – forgettable slapstick, easily understood pop culture references – are pitched at the seven and under crowd.

Ironically but unsurprisingly, “Small Soldiers” is a movie mocking how violent toys are sold to kids... That was then used to sell violent toys to kids. It's only natural, I suppose, that the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites would be turned into real mass market toys because they are pretty awesome toys. The designs are fantastic, the Commandos exaggerated the human form in an appealingly cartoon-y way. As a ten year old in 1998 who never had much interest in “G.I. Joe” and the like, I really wanted Hasbro's “Small Soldiers” figures. Nick Nitro, with his nutty grin and chiseled chin, probably has my favorite look of the lot.

The Gorgonites, meanwhile, are pretty cool little monsters. I could probably write a paragraph about each one. The leader Archer reminds me of Ron Perlman's “Beuaty and the Beast” character, in the best way. My favorite as a kid was the manic Insaniac, a purple haired goblin with a fittingly exaggerated form. (This character allows Dante to indulge in more Looney Tunes-like nuttiness.) Punch-It resembles a humanoid Megacerops in a sumo wrestler garb. Ocula is an adorable little alien cyclops. Freakenstein, a humanoid Gorgonite who is torn apart and resembles with a radio, is a really cool riff on the Frankenstein concept. Even my least favorite of the lot – Slamfist, a combination of a caveman and a hunchback with a rock for a hand for some reason – is still pretty neat.

The effects used to create this living action figures vary. Stan Winston Studios provide the practical effects. These are, naturally, excellent. The Commando Elite and Gorgonites look like real action figures – making their eventual transformation into actual toys all the more logical – yet they move in a convincing and believable fashion. Sadly, the film does not content itself with these excellent puppet effects. CGI is employed quite a bit throughout the film. These moments, of course, have not aged well. Even if living toys are easier to bring to life with antiquated CGI, they still stick out like a sore thumb against the actual actors and environments.

As much as I like the look and designs of the film's action figures, a big problem with “Small Soldiers” is that you never get an idea of these guys as characters. Of the heroic Gorgonites, Archer is the only one with a real personality. He's inquisitive and principled but shackled by his built-in extreme pacifist programming. The others, however, are reduced to broad archetypes that never connect with viewers. The Commandos, meanwhile, don't even get that much development. Chip Hazard is characterized by his obsessive desire to brutally eliminate his peaceful enemies. While some of the Elite have gimmicks – Nick Nitro has explosives, Link Static is the radio expert – most of them are just generic evil army guys. Even if they have fantastic names like Butch Meathook, Kip Killigan, and Brick Bazooka.

Perhaps in order to make up for the toys' lack of personality, an amusing gimmick was utilized when casting their voice actors. The Commandos Elite are largely voiced by actors from “The Dirty Dozen,” while the Gorgonites are largely voiced by actors from “This is Spinal Tap.” This results in Christopher Guest quoting Quasimodo while doing an amusing English accent as Slam-It. Or Harry Shearer performing a pretty good Peter Lorre impersonation as Punch-It. While the characters aren't much, it is fun to hear Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Clint Walker, and George Kennedy's voices coming out of killer toys. (Bruce Dern stands in for the late Richard Jaeckel.) Of the non-Dozen or Spinal Tap performers, Frank Langella brings a decent amount of gravitas to Archer. Tommy Lee Jones probably didn't put much thought into voicing Chip Hazard but is still excellently cast as an unhinged voice of militaristic authority.

And, ya know the voice actors prove a little more interesting than the flesh-and-blood actors. Gregory Smith plays Alan and... He's fine. Smith does not distinguish himself or the character but is a generally inoffensive performer. Kristen Dunst has some bubbly charisma as Christy, the girl next door Alan likes. Dennis Leary and Phil Hartman, reappearing from “The Second Civil War,” get some laughs as the toy company CEO and the Abernathy's asshole neighbor. Hartman's bemused reaction to everything is probably the comedic highlight of the film. (Phil died before the movie's release and it's dedicated to his memory.) David Cross is cast nicely against type as the neurotic toy design, while Jay Mohr is entirely on-type as his jockier co-designer. And, naturally, there are bit parts for Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Rance Howard, and Belinda Balaski.

It's in the last third that “Small Soldiers” starts to resemble “Gremlins” the most. Instead of Stripe multiplying via swimming pool into a horde of monsters, Chip Hazard stumbles upon a shipping truck full of Commando Elite action figures. This allows for a huge army of little attackers to lay siege to the town. There's lots of explosions, the army men fashioning a garage full of stuff into various weapons and vehicles. Flaming tennis balls smash through windows. Massive fireballs are shot. This stuff isn't without entertainment value though is certainly not as memorable as the chaos of Dante's earlier films. About the only thing that comes close is Christy's “Gwendie” dolls – Barbies – being re-purposed into zombie-like killing machines. That was an amusingly gruesome touch.

I seem to recall “Small Soldiers” being a bit of a flop as a kid. I was definitely the only kid in my school who was talking about it. Meanwhile, the weird non-controversy around the film's rating made my mom reluctant to take me to see it. (My Dad took me instead.) Yet it grossed 71 million against a 40 million dollar budget, so Universal at least didn't loose money on it. As much as I enjoyed the murderous toys and the carnage they reaped as a kid, even back then I was slightly dissatisfied with “Small Soldiers.” The film is pulled between being a sharper, nastier film mocking the military industrial complex and a simple kids flick with lots of safe mayhem. There's a lot of things to like about it but it never gels as a whole. [Grade: B-]

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