In 1995, Pixar’s Toy Story offered audiences an irresistible premise: What if your childhood toys came to life and had grand adventures?
From old-fashioned cowboys to space rangers, the movie was an overwhelming critical and commercial success, spawning a run of remarkable successes for Pixar.
In 1998, Joe Dante released another movie about childhood toys coming to life through the upstart DreamWorks, co-founded by former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg. Dante’s movie shares some similarities with Toy Story — both feature toy soldiers coming to life, after all. But while Toy Story presents the Bucket O’ Soldiers as cute, Dante had another idea. If toy soldiers came to life, then wouldn’t they act like soldiers?
That’s the idea played out to its logical end in Small Soldiers, a movie that is in no uncertain terms about savage capitalism. Commercially, it was everything that Toy Story was not: middling reviews and meager box office. But Dante’s satire remains just as sharp, if not sharper, today. Here’s why you should add Small Soldiers, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, to your watchlist.
Among other things, Small Soldiers has a cast packed with ‘90s comedy stars and rising actors who were about to become global phenomenons. The movie features David Cross and ex-SNL player Jay Mohr as Irwin Wayfair and Larry Benson, a pair working at a toy company recently purchased by defense-industrial giant GloboTech Industries and their tyrannical CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary).
Desperate to keep their jobs, the two offer up a variety of toy ideas. Irwin imagines a group of peaceful creatures called the Gorgonites, who have to learn about Earth to find their home. Irwin’s idea bores CEO Mars, who warms to Larry’s idea of the Commando Elite, a military fighting unit. Quickly, he decides that the two should be enemies. And when presented with a potential ad for the Commandos, he asks, what if they could do that for real?
Being a division within a weapons company has some advantages: Mars can connect the two with state-of-the-art microprocessors, and the toys get hyped up with a slogan dissing their lifeless competition: Everything else is just a toy.
Small Soldiers then shifts its story from a giant corporation to a small, independent toy store, where we find teenager Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) and his dad, the store’s owner. His dad prefers classic toys that modern kids don’t care for, so Alan convinces delivery driver Joe (Dick Miller) to give him some new, cutting-edge Commandos and Gorgonites to make a quick profit. And maybe, if he’s lucky, he can get one to impress the cute girl Christy (a pre-Spiderman Kirsten Dunst), who keeps stopping by the store.
Two problems emerge. The first is Christy only dates older boys, including the motorcycle-riding Brad (Jonathan Bouck). The second, and perhaps more pressing issue, is that the Commandos activate early, led by Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones). Hazard quickly proves himself to be a genocidal lunatic activating the rest of the Commandos (voiced by Dirty Dozen cast members George Kennedy, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, and Bruce Dern).
Hazard wants to brutally destroy the Gorgonites, voiced by Frank Langella, Jim Cummings, Spinal Tap alumni Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. Director Joe Dante plays out Hazard’s hatred against a background inspired by Patton, a puzzle of the American flag. After so many years of G.I Joe cartoon adventures, Dante wants to spell out what it’s like to fight a war in miniature.
Dante told Den of Geek in 2008, his marching orders initially were to make an “edgy picture for teenagers, but when the sponsor tie-ins came in, the new mandate was to soften it up as a kiddie movie. Too late, as it turned out, and there are elements of both approaches in there.”
Dante is correct; Small Soldiers varies wildly in tone. The Commandos, to quote Roger Ebert’s negative review, are “truly evil.” They seek to kill and dominate the Gorgonites and those they deem their allies. At first, they do this with cute toy weapons, but the Commandos quickly learn to use kitchen knives and electronic equipment stolen from Christy’s dad (Phil Hartman in his last live-action role). They very promptly form a serious threat not just to their fellow toys but to humans as well.
Small Soldiers would end up standing in the shadow of not just one but three movies. There’s Toy Story. Then there’s another DreamWorks co-production that came out the same summer: Saving Private Ryan. There’s also Dante’s earlier dark suburban story, Gremlins. Speaking to Daily Dead, Dante said that many referred to Small Soldiers as “Gremlins 2 and a Half.”
Small Soldiers is a mix of all these movies, creating something truly odd and unique.
Of all things, the credits for Small Soldiers play over a rap-rock remix of “War” featuring Bone-Thugz-N-Harmony, Henry Rollins, Flea, and Tom Morello. Then comes a remix of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” featuring Queen Latifah. Neither of these should work, but they do.
It’s reflective of the movie itself. Despite its tonal shifts, Small Soldiers is a biting satire that gets its point across.
Small Soldiers is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.