Small Soldiers (1998) — G.I. Joe meets… Gremlins?

“You’ve got a lot of guts. Let’s see what they look like.”

Justin’s rating: But… Godzilla said that size matters!

Justin’s review: If there was any justice in the cinematic world, then studios would’ve looked at the off-the-wall brilliance of Gremlins and Gremlins 2 — and then given director Joe Dante a princely sum to make a glorious third entry. But alas, there was no third movie featuring mogwais and their hellspawn. Really, the closest we got, and this is a complete consolation prize here, is another Joe Dante flick about out-of-control pint-sized terrors. However, instead of being about scaly green critters, 1998’s Small Soldiers took the field of kids toys and made a bewildering end product.

Allegedly, Small Soldiers was initially going to be a pretty hard PG-13 action romp with the intent of drawing in the teens and excitable adults with a unique premise. And allegedly, the studio balked at this angle and forced a lot of last-minute changes to round off the sharp edges. The result? A film that appealed to pretty much no specific demographic and has been buried in the landfills of movie history.

Yet this is a downright fascinating movie when you sit down to examine it. The toys were based on the He-Man and G.I. Joe lines, with Hasbro providing much of the consultation. Instead of getting the cast of Predator to voice the toys, Joe Dante instead settled for several members of the original Dirty Dozen instead. Legendary creature creator Stan Winston worked on the toy designs, although much of the actual movement went to CGI over puppets. It was the last movie that Phil Hartman made before he was murdered, and the associated toys made to market the movie ended up selling better than the film itself.

It also houses a veritable who’s-who of ’90s movie royalty, including Kirsten Dunst, Jay Mohr, David Cross, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Christina Ricci, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Denis Leary, Robert Picardo, Frank Langella, and Tommy Lee Jones. With all of that taken into consideration, is it possible that we too quickly dismissed what is a hidden gem of the decade? I had no idea, which is why I dove into this for the first time to see it with a fresh perspective.

Arms manufacturer Globotech decides, for some reason, to diversify into the toy-making business. Under pressure to produce the most advanced new toy line ever, designers Mohr and Cross liberally borrow from Globotech’s high-tech microprocessors and end up creating sentient life. This strange life gets shipped initially to a boy named Alan, who is initially delighted over the self-propelled movement and voices of the “Commando Elite” and the “Gorgonites.”

Little does Alan suspect that the Commando Elite — led by Jones’ Chip Hazard — are bloodthirsty mercs that aren’t afraid to wage war on beings 700% their size. Alan’s and humanity’s best hope is with the alien-looking yet friendly Gorgonites. Your Mogwai to the Gremlins, so to speak. There’s a template here to be followed. And part of that famous template is giving Alan a romantic prospect-slash-cohort, which ends up being a young Dunst. Alan also works at a really cool toy store for his kindly yet scatterbrained father, which fits as well.

It’s kind of a mild stroke of genius to marry puppetry and early CGI with action figures, because toys are supposed to look “off” and unnatural anyway. Actually, the designs — all praise to Stan Winston — are pretty fantastic on both sides of the war. It gets even more bonkers when the Barbie analogues — “Gwendy” dolls — join the fight. You don’t want to get on a Gwendy’s bad side, trust me. They’ll spit out shrieky quotes like “Will you take me to the prom?” while trying to rip your face off.

While you can watch Small Soldiers for its surface-level ultra-violence, Dante and company are making a none-too-subtle message about how media and toy companies tend to advertise the military to young children. Of course, the movie is doing just that, so there’s irony and satire sleeping in bed together.

Apart from the often forced puns and some too-cool-for-school references, Small Soldiers is the unexpected delight I had hoped it would be. It’s a whole lot of fun to watch a gaggle of toys fight with each other and the neighborhood. And let’s not forget that Joe Dante knows how to put some genuine craft into his flicks, especially when they’re slathered in a silly premise. I’d concede that this isn’t quite up to Gremlins, probably because of studio interference, but it’s pretty terrific even so.

And it made me miss Phil Hartman all over again, which I didn’t think was possible.

Didja notice?

  • Probably shouldn’t trust any global company that has Denis Leary as its CEO
  • Of course it makes sense for a weapons company to make toys!
  • “Don’t call it violence. Call it ‘action.’ Kids love action.”
  • His password is “gizmo.” Where have I heard that before?
  • The main theme and toy assembly is groovy
  • That kid has the most ’90s haircut ever
  • Hey, it’s Joe Dante regular Dick Miller!
  • Cats dig sentient toys
  • Hey ’90s kids, remember Encarta? It was a thing before the internet was as much of a thing.
  • The Patton speech
  • He’s an X-Files kind of guy
  • “You’re not like other girls.” “I know. I’m Kirsten Dunst.”
  • “You put munitions chips in TOYS?”
  • “Are you on crank?”
  • Dibs on the chainsaw.
  • Some assembly required
  • The Gwendys are terrifying
  • “She’s got a baton! It’s the baton death march!”

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