American Values, Child-Sized
It's hard to come up with a comment about Small Soldiers that doesn't contain an oversized word. The CG and special effects are spectacular, the script's smart and hilarious, the directing is breathtaking. It features brilliant cameo casting, plus a perfectly constructed soundtrack. The audience goes from gasping at the action sequences to howling in laughter at the lines. There's biting social satire and numerous cultural in-jokes. Even a negative comment requires a hyperbolic adverb - this film contains extreme violence for a movie targeted towards kids. But that's just about the only problem with Joe Dante's latest film. Small Soldiers is a huge accomplishment.
The film establishes a quasi-parodic tone from the outset that serves it well later when the events start to stretch credulity. Department of Defense supplier Globotech Industries, a mega-corporation trying to take over the globe by invading every household with its technology, has recently taken over Heartland Play Systems - which formerly made education-based toys. A commercial pitch for a "Commando Elite" action figure which can talk and rip apart its own packaging leads the greedy CEO to demand production of the exact toy featured in the fake advertisement...and to offer the designers access to all of Globotech's secret technology, including military surplus items. One of the designers fits the action figures with a "smart chip" and a lifetime battery, thus creating the as-yet-inactive smallest yet smartest fighting force in the world.
The toy soldiers and their designer-created enemies, the noble savage Gorgonites, arrive at a toy store owned by the family of Alan Abernathy (Kevin Dunn). Alan convinces the truck driver to give him a set as a means to boost the store's revenue. When he opens two boxes, however, he activates Chip Hazard, leader of the commandos (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones), and Archer, leader of the Gorgonites (voiced by Frank Langella doing his best James Earl Jones imitation). The two commence their mortal struggle, with Chip activating the rest of his squad and trashing the toy store while Archer sneaks home with Alan and learns about the world via Alan's PC. The boy's discovery that the toys can talk, learn, and fight happens simultaneously with his father's discovery that his son has once again caused trouble for the family.
In his desire to protect the Gorgonites, Alan is aided by the lovely girl next door, Christy (Kirsten Dunst), who's a closet Led Zeppelin and X-Files fan and who secretly collects Gwendy dolls, which apparently makes her a misfit despite being gorgeous. The two families don't get along, since Christy's tech-collecting, self-absorbed father (Phil Hartman in his last role) can't abide his granola neighbors, who in turn can't tolerate his gadgets. When the commandos learn of Alan's crush on Christy, they take her hostage, enlisting her father's toys and her own computer-modified dolls to aid in their effort. All-out war ensues as the newly sentient Gorgonites struggle to overcome their programming, which dictates that they will always lose to the smarter, stronger commandos.
The solution to the problem with the small soldiers is provided early - about halfway through the movie - but by the time it's implemented, the focus has shifted from how Alan and friends will defeat the soldiers to whether the families can be repaired and the Gorgonites spared. The former question is not answered convincingly, an interesting choice in a film that implicitly suggests family values have little power against consumer culture. The comic motifs echo this sentiment, such as evil corporate practices (indistinguishable from obsessive military tactics), kids' propensity to choose violent toys over educational ones, and the general worthlessness of good old neighborhood and family bonding in times of crisis. The kids are perceived as losers by their parents, but the adults in this movie make Charlie Brown's non-English-speaking grownups seem tuned in.
It's not too hard to predict the plot twists - structurally, this movie is reminiscent of Star Wars, Cinderella, and dozens of other stories where puny, socially rejected underdogs overcome a powerful social hierarchy and discover that they're stronger, smarter, better than they think. This pat, uplifting theme is largely overwhelmed by the visual spectacle and particularly the humor. Even the violence is mitigated by the wicked amusement of watching a person shot with corn picks, or stabbed with miniature appliances by half-melted fashion dolls reciting, "It's time for another facial!"
The voices of the action figures all sound familiar with good reason: the members of the original Dirty Dozen speak for the commandos, the members of Spinal Tap dub the Gorgonites, and Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci talk for the mutilated Barbie Brigade. Hundreds of other pop culture references, from Chip Hazard's old war-movie cliche dialogue to the remixed '80s soundtrack ("Another One Bites the Dust," "Love Is a Battlefield"), provide enough inside jokes to keep audience members from any generation entertained.
Visually, the live action and computer graphics shared the screen in virtually every scene with not one jarring or mis-timed moment that I could spot. The film's greatest achievement may be that Chip and Archer are more memorable than any of the human characters. Archer resembles Vincent from the television series Beauty and the Beast, with innate dignity and grace. Chip is a nightmare version of every crazed general in the popular imagination, parading in front of a completed puzzle of an American flag while spouting mindless rhetoric about defeating enemies and defending institutions which don't really exist. He's got Buzz Lightyear's smile, G.I. Joe's body and Hitler's attitude.
Speaking of Buzz Lightyear, it's impossible not to draw comparisons with Toy Story despite the different sorts of animation employed by the two films. The Gorgonites resemble nothing so much as the cannibalized toys in Sid's house in the Disney flick; there's even a sequence in which Alan attaches a rocket to Archer so the Gorgonite can parachute down his chimney. It's tempting to describe Small Soldiers as the dark side of Toy Story, but it's more complicated than that; in this film, the toys are what their entire culture has made them, and the commentary on that culture is considerably more scathing.
Unfortunately, the film's social criticism is undercut by the sheer glee of the violence created via familiar household objects. And the gender roles are pretty traditional: Alan's got a Xena poster, but Christy's no independent warrior princess. One mom spends most of the movie zonked on alcohol and sleeping pills, the other spouts nurturing New Age silliness; the dads aren't much more useful (indeed, Alan's mom's tennis skills come in handy) but at least it appears the men have existence beyond their families. Still, it's not worth overanalyzing, since less care appears to have been put into the live people than their animated counterparts. My personal favorite humans were the two corporate cliches, the brown-nosing hardware guy and the morally upright designer, whom Christy's dad promptly summed up as "nerds," plus the self-aggrandizing creator of the designer microchip (Robert Picardo, in an environmental suit, doing a twist on Dr. Louis Zimmerman).
Small Soldiers is worth seeing for the warped use of collanders, toasters, radios, disposals, and other familiar household items in the hands of the army. The nuclear family and its abode is their battleground, and despite Alan's defense of the Gorgonites, it would appear that the forces of evil are winning over mundane American homes.