Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Small Soldiers (1998)

The Movie: Globotech Industries, the archetypal all-devouring mega corporation; formerly a military contractor but now branching out, has just acquired the Heartland Toy Company. CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary) meets with Larry Benson (Jay Mohr) and Irwin Wayfair (David Cross, who you may recognize from the show Arrested development, or his role as the villain in the Alvin and the Chipmunks live-action movie), the last remaining employees of the former company, to come up with a new big-selling toy line. Mars expresses the desire for a fully interactive action figure, one that will literally play with its owner. Also, he gives the men an extremely short deadline to roll them out.

The results are the Commando Elite, soldiers whose only purpose is to destroy the Gorgonites. The Gorgonites, created by Irwin, are these monsters whose purpose is to learn and find their home world, Gorgon. Mars doesn’t like the idea of a toy about learning, so he has them incorporated into the Commando line as the Commandos’ victims. Larry finds a powerful computer chip to program the figures with, and they are packaged.

Meanwhile, teenaged Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) has just moved to a new town with his parents. Alan has something of a delinquent past, which is still haunting him. His parents won’t trust him now, and he already has a reputation among his peers. This causes him to think that his crush on his next door neighbor, Christy Fimple (the lovely and talented Kirsten Dunst), is hopeless.

Then there are his parents’ (Kevin Dunn and Ann Magnuson) problems; main one being his father’s toy store, which doesn’t make money because his father refuses the stock the high tech war toys that are so popular. There’s also Christy’s insufferable father (the late Phil Hartman, best known for the voices of Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz on the Simpsons); a jerk obsessed with owning as much techno junk as he can and an obnoxious neighbor.

But Alan’s real problems begin when his father goes on a business trip and puts him in charge of the store. Joe the delivery guy (the ubiquitous Dick Miller) has some of the new toys on his truck. Alan talks him into loaning him a set, which he intends to sell while his father is away. Unfortunately, in doing this Alan has bitten off a lot more than he can chew.

It turns out that the chips Larry found for the toys are an extremely high-tech munitions chip that enhances the programming of whatever it is placed in, to the point of actual intelligence. Befriended by Archer (voice of Frank Langella), the leader of the Gorgonites, Alan finds himself in the middle of a war. Led by Major Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones); the Commando Elite are clever, and ruthless, and determined to destroy the Gorgonites along with anyone who gets in their way…

The Review:

“Everything else, is just a toy.”

Small Soldiers came out during my late high school years, so I remember the advertising blitz. The studio tried to milk as much money out of it as they could; toys, a video game, a soundtrack, even a promotional sandwich at Burger King. Every time I watch my VHS copy I get a reminder, a short blitz before the movie on all the wonderful products that came with it. What I find both funny and sad about this arrangement is how out of step it is with the movie. Small Soldiers itself is very much against this kind of crass commercialism.

Probably one of the most striking things about Small Soldiers is just how un-commercial it is. For example, the target audience; most adults are going to think ‘toys coming to life, it’s a kids’ movie’ and not bother watching it. The studio certainly played up on the image of it as a movie for kids. However, Small Soldiers is very much not a kids’ movie. It’s very mature and, while the general spirit of the movie is young at heart, it is also filled with themes and references that will go right over younger viewers’ heads.

Small Soldiers is a tongue-in-cheek satire on the military-industrial complex that has infested our country in the past century or so, as well as the prevalence of mindless consumerism that fuels it. The very pointed opening scene, a commercial about Globotech and its switch to the private sector, lets you know immediately what you’re getting into. Also, there is the cynical design behind the toys themselves. The Commandos’ sole purpose is to destroy the Gorgonites; so if you happen to just buy one toy, or if they succeed at their goal, there’s really nothing left for them to do.

The Commandos are definitely avatars of a military-industrial complex gone amuck. They only exist to win, and are too single-minded to think about what that might mean. They are always reciting platitudes, ones you’ll recognize from various war movies, which sound tough and impressive; but are ultimately meaningless. Also, at the beginning, the Commandos decide that the plastic weapons they come with are useless, and they seek suitable replacements. The end result is that throughout the movie, the Commandos collect all of the consumer goodies the humans have been hording and turn them into deadly weapons to use on their owners. Tennis-ball launchers, lawnmowers, toasters, power tools; all these and more are used against the heroes.

The Gorgonites provide an interesting counterpoint to the Commandos. On the one hand, they are initially programmed to do two things; hide, and lose to the Commandoes. However, Irwin also programmed them to learn, his original concept for them. As a result, they can reason and reflect on their choices. Unlike the Commandos, the Gorgonites are eventually able to override their programming, and therefore win in the end.

Probably the most amazing thing about the two sets of toys is that each individual is unique, with his own personality. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that the movie shortchanges the human characters. All of them, while for the most part very lightly sketched out, are convincing. Alan, our hero, comes across as a typical teenage boy, with everything that entails.

The character of Christy is also well acted by Dunst. However, what I find interesting is how she is employed. In most movies of this type, the love interest serves as the damsel in distress who has to be rescued by the hero. That’s how it starts out, but it turns out that Christy is pretty tough and competent once she is untied. In fact, Christy and Alan alternate between saving each other from the Commandos throughout the movie. At one point Christy even asks him “is this going to be the basis of our relationship?”

Equally laudable, in my opinion, is how the other main human characters are used in the climactic final battle against the Commandos. In most movies of this type, it is the juvenile heroes who save the day while the adults are useless. However, nearly everyone in the big siege, which includes Alan and Christy’s families, as well as Larry and Irwin, contributes. Even Larry and Mr. Fimple, who would normally just be odious comedy relief, make valuable contributions to the defeat of the Commandos. Alan strikes the final blow, of course, but the adults are needed for him to be able to do it. The only exception is Christy’s mother, who’s still woozy from the sleeping pills the Commandos drugged her with earlier.

The final and most important element of Small Soldiers is its general tone and atmosphere. It is obvious that somebody had a lot of fun making this movie, and that really shows in the finished product. There are all sorts of warped little touches, such as the Commandos opening up the climactic siege by blaring the Spice Girls (“Psychological warfare,” Alan’s mother tells him when he asks. “It’s how the marines got Noriega,” Christy adds.), to the various movie references. Or, what I find to be the best and most nightmarish part of the movie, when the Commandos use a chip from a fallen comrade to animate Christy’s Gwendy (aka Barbie) dolls as reinforcements.

Overall, Small Soldiers is a very warped, pointed, and fun little movie. It is a truly twisted satire and black comedy, one that is even more relevant in the decade-plus since it was made. Yeah, it’s about toys coming to life, but it definitely is not a kids’ movie. Try to forget about the image the studio tried to build about the movie, and just sit down and watch it. I promise, if you’re of a particular frame of mind you won’t regret it.

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