Thursday, November 14, 2019

Small Soldiers 1998 Movie Review w/Spoilers

From the far reaches of the Milky Way Galaxy, It's Retro Nerd Girl with a film review for you.

Today I'll be reviewing the movie Small Soldiers released in 1998.

Kirsten Dunst, Gregory Smith, David Cross

Directed by:
Joe Dante

Action, Adventure, Comedy

Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Rating:

$40,000,000 (estimated)

Current IMDb Rating When Reviewed:

The Synopsis is:
A toy factory, Heartland Play Systems, puts out a new line of toys, The Commando Elite, who fight against the Gargonites, which have been accidentally given military munitions chips.  All goes awry when a pre-released batch are dropped off at a young boy’s family owned toy store by the name of Alan.

The screenplay was written by Gavin Scott, Adam Rifkin, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio.  Joe Dante was brought in to direct the film. 

Many critiques on the film dwell on the similarities to this and Toy Story, released in 1995.  I agree that there are at least two scenes from Toy Story that was copied exactly. 

Personally, I don’t mind so much that it’s copied because the scenes actually work in the film to tell the story. They aren’t without purpose, which is the biggest problem most films have that copy. They just throw in scene to be cool.

The main argument about the film being complete “Toy Story rip off”, which I disagree with, is that the film dares to be about dolls being brought to life. Toy Story was so beloved by the public it’s hard to imagine any other films about toys being brought to life could be anything but a complete rip-off. 

However, the genre of toys or dolls being brought to life has been buzzing around for years before Toy Story.

Here are a few films and TV shows that pre-date Toy Story that feature talking toys.  Heck you might even think of a few more that should be on this list.

  • Babes in Toyland (1934)
  • Poor Little Rich Girl (1936)
  • The Devil-Doll (1936)
  • Pinocchio (1940)
  • The Curse of the Doll People (1961)
  • Devil Doll (1964)
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964 TV Movie)
  • Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968)
  • Pinocchio (1972)
  • Trilogy of Terror (1975)
  • The Nutcracker (1977 TV Movie based on the 1892 Ballet)
  • Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
  • Magic (1978)
  • The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)
  • The Christmas Toy (1986 TV Movie)
  • The Raggy Dolls (1986–1994)
  • Dolls (1987)
  • Child’s Play 1988
  • Child's Play 2 (1990)
  • Child's Play 3 (1991)
  • The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1988–1991)
  • Tin Toy (1988)
  • Grandpa's Magical Toys (1988 Video)
  • Akira (1988)
  • Puppetmaster (1989 Video)
  • Puppetmaster (1989)
  • Puppet Master II (1990 Video)
  • Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge (1991 Video)
  • Puppet Master 4 (1993 Video)
  • Puppet Master 5 (1994 Video)
  • Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue (1990 TV Short)
  • DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990)
  • Dolly Dearest (1991)
  • Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991)
  • Barney & Friends (1992–2009)
  • The Dollhouse Murders (1992 TV Movie)
  • Dollman vs. Demonic Toys (1993)
  • The Forgotten Toys (1995)
  • The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)

In fact, Toy Story heavily “borrowed” characters, and ideas presented in the aforementioned The Christmas Toy (1986 TV Movie) in the original film and sequels. So I guess what I am saying is that many of the “original” movie ideas we believe are so unique and rip-off-able are concepts used in film making for ages.  Every film "rips-off" films that came before.  It can’t be helped.

With that aside,  I like to listen to my internal compass.  Did the film make me laugh?  Was I entertained?  Do I want to see this again?  And for me, the answer is yes to  all three questions.

To me, I see a stronger correlation with the story from Gremlins released in 1984! 

Does anyone else see this?  A boy gets a new play thing from an older man and bad versions of this play thing destroy everything in their path. 

Not only that, the film is packed with many references to Gremlins 1984 woven into the plot.

One of the inventors of the toys, Irwin, has his password at Heartland Play Systems, Gizmo.

You can spot a gremlin’s skull on Alan's desk in one of the scenes.

Alan is mainly responsible for activating the toys as the main character in Gremlins, Billy Peltzer was responsible for getting Gizmo wet and ultimately setting off the chain of events that would result in the Gremlins taking over his town.

The scene of the Gorgonites watching television mirrors scenes of Gizmo watching television in Gremlins 1984

When Alan is looking for the Gorgonites in the trash, a keychain of Gizmo from Gremlins (1984) can be seen to the right of the character, Ocula.

Dick Miller plays the toy delivery truck driver in this film, but also plays the paranoid Gremlin believer in Gremlins and it’s sequel in 1990.

In the climax battle at the end, the Mom character becomes the unexpected hero battling the Commando’s as the Mom character in Gremlins heroically fights off the Gremlins in her kitchen.

As in Gremlins, the characters seem to gravitate towards using household items into weapons, especially hardware tools.

As with many of Joe Dante films, there are many, many references to other films and pop culture which could either come off as a cute callback or an annoying cliche.  I loved it.

The scene where Chip Hazard addresses his troops and appears in front of the large American flag is a nod to the opening of the film Patton (1970).

The music being played during the scene where they turn the "Gwendy" dolls into soldiers is the theme music from Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  As well, the entire scene is inspired by Frankenstein 1931.

After one of the Commando Elite, Nick Nitro shuts down, Chip Hazard says, "His battery has run out, but his memory will keep going, and going, and going." It's a reference to Energizer batteries’ marketing slogan, "It keeps, going, and going, and going."

The movie borrows Terminator vision, where we see the assessments and response choices from the AI’s point of view.

The piranha next to Alan's computer is a reference to Piranha (1978), also directed by Joe Dante.

The film borrows from the Burbs where the neighbors band together and end up surviving a night of explosions and shenanigans together.  This is another film Directed by Joe Dante featuring actors Wendy Schaal and Dick Miller who I mentioned also appears in this film and coincidentally drives trucks in all three films, the Burbs, Gremlins and Small Soldiers.

There is a connection to Transformers TV series where we have a battle between two robotic sides and we have human characters supporting the good guys.

The film is filled with every war movie trope and dialogue.  About 90% of the dialogue is quotable from other movies.  Some of them are of a mature nature, which met a conflict of interest for parents.

And in spite of all of the mimicry and references to other films, Small Soldiers does have a few brand new elements that it introduces to the audience.

The lore behind the Gargonites is that the fearsome looking, yet peaceful race of aliens are searching for their home world, Gargon.  It is very interesting and gives way for more world building with lots of potential.

A book of the film, "Small Soldiers: Top-Secret Dossier: From The Files of Irwin Wayfair" by Irwin Wayfair, who is the creator of the Gargonites, was actually published in real life by Puffin Books. 

This was Wayfair's private journal, which gave an insight into what went wrong at Heartland Play Systems.

Then in the undercurrent of the plot there is an ecological message as we have the Gargonites searching for the natural setting of Gargon opposing the technically savvy Commando Elite, that destroys without question.  And as well we have the two neighbors at odds with one another, the satellite dish loving Phil Fimple versus the tree loving Stuart Abernathy, Alan’s Dad.

At an hour and 50 minutes, it's way too long.  The beginning moves a little too slow, to set up the many characters and how the trouble all started.  But by the last half, it picks up and gets super action packed.

The challenge in the film is at first the happenstance of a botched military x1000 AI chip being implanted into action figures that are set to distribute world wide.

One simple shipment gets dropped off at Alan’s toy shop and accidentally activated, in which we get a glimpse of the battle between a perceived good and evil.

The twist is that the soldiers that fit the archetype of the American hero, are not by nature evil, however, proceeding with incredibly violent means to destroy their perceived enemy.

The Commando Elite are fun loving soldiers doing a job so there is a bit of comedy during their exploits, but make no mistake, they are an incredible threat in the story for both the Gargonites and pretty much any human that the soldiers think are helping them.

They are ruthless, cunning and quite creative, especially with designing dangerous weapons and vehicles out of things found in your average tool shed.

The leader of the Commando Elite, Chip Hazard deserves special attention because of all of them, he is the one upholding the purpose of their creation to its highest level of obsession.  There is a part in the film when he has the chance to bring to life a new army of Commando Elite from the toy plant and he wisely doesn’t bring any of his own action figures to life. 

His ego controls his actions, to win at any price.  This is a personal fight for him.  He sounds off his point of view quite often announcing, “The Gargonites are the enemy and they must be destroyed.”

From his point of view, he is a hero and that is what makes him an excellent challenge.  The character  believes that what he is doing is for the greater good.

The empathy wavers a bit between characters but the one the movie wants you to really root for is Alan.  However, Alan is not that great of a character.

He’s been kicked out of several schools for doing some graffiti and now his parents are having a hard time trusting him.

There is no explanation why Alan has changed and there is barely any proof that he has except his word, at least in the beginning.  As the film continues, you get the sense that he truly is trying to do the right thing, but he simply has bad luck getting things to go his way.

This is especially evident seeing how he activates the Commando Elite by accident.  That’s just bad luck.

Alan makes friends with the Gargonite leader, Archer.  Archer is extremely likable immediately, but other than his position as leader and giving great monologues of exposition, he does very little.  In fact, during the fights, he hides in fright.  He is not the hero of the film which you’d expect him to be.

Alan is the one set up to be the hero along with his prize of winning the girl at the end, the neighbors daughter, Christy Fimple.

Christy is likable, but we know very little about her except for the fact that she has bad taste in guys, fills her room with dolls he hates and enjoys destroying the Commando Elite dolls. 

She is trying so very hard to break out of her good girl image that her parents are enforcing on her but the lack of time given to the character is a detriment to story.  We can see that the Fimples are dysfunctional, pretending to be “normal”.  Mrs. Fimple drinks through her passivity when dealing with her husband, and Mr. Fimple is completely obsessed with being a provider to his family in the modern age.

The technical aspects are one of the strongest elements in the film.

The character designs were pretty cool looking in my opinion.  I loved how intimidating they looked and when I first saw them, I couldn’t wait to see the adventures they would have.

The Commando Elite were strongly influenced by the "G.I. Joe" toy franchise by Hasbro so Stan Winston, and his special effects crew, met with Hasbro to get a better understanding of how their toys work.

The Gorgonites were strongly influenced by the "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" toy franchise by Mattel. And that is not the only connection to the franchise, Frank Langella who does the voice of Archer played the role as Skeletor in the movie Masters of the universe 1987.

I think here is where the character design was really done well, demonstrating the oddity of the Gargonites as aliens while keeping the whimsy of being a toy for kids to play with.

Joe Dante said "... we we're planning to use a lot of Stan Winston's puppets he had made some very elaborate puppets that could do a lot of things, but in practice we found it was much simpler and cheaper to let the CGI people do the work after we shot the scenes, so I would say it's one-third puppetry and the rest CGI even though the original idea was to do mostly puppetry".

At the end of the day it was reasonable to stick to the budget, but the CGI was just wasn’t good enough to pull off 100% of the time.

This was about the time that CGI was a novelty filmmakers used in abundance even though the technology wasn’t quite perfected yet.  That didn’t matter, because everybody used it for everything.  And although it can be fun, it didn’t always look as good as practical effects.  I do appreciate the effort though, because these kind of movies really helped to advance the skill in the industry.

What I must commend the film on is the editing of the different types of special effects together.  I thought it was done well.

The vehicles that the Commando Elite construct, and that they used to attack and chase Alan and Christy, and attack the Fimple house, are heavily influenced by the vehicles from the Mad Max movies.  I just loved how creative they looked and quite menacing at the same time.  What a fantastic job.

The music was decent in my opinion, but many people loved it for some of the more popular songs for 1998 that were inserted into the film. 

There was one particular epic moment when the song “War” appears in the film performed by Bone Thugs n Harmony with Henry Rollins and a sample of "War" as performed by Edwin Starr.

Gregory Smith was very good as Alan Abernathy doing all that he could with what he was given bringing a sense of urgency to his character.

Tommy Lee Jones owns this film with his voice acting for Chip Hazard.  It’s classic Tommy, working well in the embodiment of the leader of the Commando Elite.  His performance was so charismatic and dynamic, it sounds like he was having a lot of fun doing it and really sinks his teeth into every scene he’s in.  It was the glue that kept me watching.
I absolutely loved his performance.

Frank Langella was amazing as the voice of Archer, capturing the gentle manner of the character.  It’s always a pleasure to hear his rich, riveting and awe inspiring  baritone voice.

I thought David Cross and Jay Mohr were and excellent ying yang pairing with great comedic chemistry together.

Denis Leary does his Denis Leary thing, with a rant.

Joe Dante loves casting Dick Miller in his movies, who is always a joy to see.

Kirsten Dunst was great as Christy Fimple.  She brought a lot of spice and personality to a simplistic character.

Phil Hartman plays Phil Fimple in his usual caricature offering a lot of whacky comedy to the film. Unfortunately, Phil was killed shortly after the production wrapped and a short statement on the credits said that the film was dedicated to him.  Out of respect, some of the scenes filmed with Phil’s character being tortured for laughs was not included out of respect to his memory.

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci both voiced the Gwendy dolls.

We have a lot of cameos from, Robert Picardo, Kevin Dunn, Ann Magnuson, Wendy Schaal and Cheri Oteri.

The Commando Elite were voiced by George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim Brown who all also played soldiers in The Dirty Dozen (1967).

The Gargonites were voiced by Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean who had previously played together in This Is Spinal Tap (1984).

Not every joke made me laugh, but I enjoyed the laughs I did have.

I enjoyed the Voltron / Power Rangers style connection of tech vehicles into one big vehicle that the Commando Elite created for their attack.   In fact, I loved all of the fantastic vehicles and tech that the Commando Elite invented. 

The film has no shortage of hearty explosions and I am a little shy to say that I enjoyed them a lot. 

And lastly, Chip Hazard.  What a fun and dynamic character!  He really makes this film for me.

The ending:
I was very happy with the ending at first, but it is an unfinished story.  It leaves a lot of weird questions like what will happen to the Garonites in the wilderness.  And what will happen to those rebels in South America that the owner of Heartland Play Systems will give the toys to.  After a while, are there going to be Gargonite toys in jungles all over the world, believing that it is Gargon? 

Wish List:
I wish that the film had less characters to keep our focus on why the good guys should win.  The protagonists were so lackluster and scattered that I was secretly rooting for the Commando Elite.  Does that make me a bad person?

One little bit of detail in the story that bugs me, is that the neighbors were drugged with sleeping pills by the Commando Elite, but then were up for the final climax battle.   Even though I enjoyed seeing Phil Hartman in those scenes, technically the neighbors shouldn’t really wake-up until the next day.

The Gargonites mentioned several times that they were good at hiding and they do a lot of that in the film.  However, it was a bit disappointing to see them let so many people get hurt on their behalf.  I wished they had courage and I wished that the final battle between Chip Hazard and Archer was more exciting.  Archer, is not a fighter in the film, but as the leader of the Gargonites, he should be equipped to fight for his group. 

It would be really cool to have this really powerful character be sweet and peaceful, but have that authority to defend himself.

This film builds an incredible rivalry between Archer and Chip, like the battle of two great titans.  But what we got was quite disappointing.

The film got off to a rocky start because many of the people who saw the trailer and poster thought that the film would be great for little kids, especially boys.

It didn’t make matters any better when Burger King agreed to market the film with its kids meals, before it received its rating of PG-13.

Needless to say, the film was met with mixed reviews due to the confusion of mixing the genres of toys,  action, and mature themes. 

According to Joe Dante, he was brought in to give the film an edgy appeal and duplicate his success with Gremlins.  But once the film’s sponsors got involved, he was asked to make a more “kiddie” movie.  This was probably done to fall in line with a toy line.

That pretty much explains why this film seems so odd of a fit for kids.  How do you make a film like Gremlins into a kiddie movie without destroying everything that makes it so good? 

I find it ironic that that there is a scene in the movie that mirrors real life where the Gargonite toys were intended to be friendly creatures and the toy company changes them to be the monsters for the Commando Elite to destroy, twisting the origins for sales.

Burger King was clearly not a good match for Small Soldiers due to their intention to appeal to very young children, but I think a brand like Home Depot would have been more appropriate since the characters would be using home garage tools.  Do you agree?

Many people were outraged at what was done to the Gwendy dolls in the movie and how they were put into bikinis and brutally mangled. I actually think that it was not meant to be offensive because the Commando Elite are not scientists nor do they care about beauty but function for their purposes.  The dolls were also electrocuted in order to come to life, so that also damaged them.

A heavily edited version of the film made its way to TV viewings over the years garnering a small fan base.  And that was how I was exposed to the film and loved it ever since my first viewing. 

I didn’t realize that this film was so disliked and made fun of on the internet.  It kinda makes me sad that some people can’t see what I see in Small Soldiers.  However, I know that in the mix there are a few of us out there that like the film for the weirdness of being a toy action film with saucy quibs, bellowing explosions and wanton destruction. 

In spite of its problems, I liked the idea behind the story of a batch of army toys brought to life and gone rogue.   It was a great idea with so much potential.  And even though the film is not for kids and not quite for grownups, I think that this film was made for me, the grown up with a rather active inner child.

My Rating:

That sums up my review.  I hope you liked it.  This is Retro Nerd Girl signing off!

Take care movie lovers!  I'm off to my next review!

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