A Joe Dante movie always like a conflict — a battle between blockbuster and personal statement, led by a filmmaker with keen commercial instinct, yet the heart of a non-conformist. Through it all, one walks away with the feeling that while the film itself may have some rough edges, there’s a true love for moviemaking (heck, movies themselves) at the core. That makes perfect sense — before Dante was in the industry, he wrote opinionated mini-reviews for the Castle of Frankenstein magazine. After apprenticing as an editor for Roger Corman, he directed Piranha and The Howling, the latter a film that is a veritable love letter to the history of werewolves on film wrapped within a postmodernist take on them. Again, always that juxtaposition.
Perhaps Dante’s biggest monetary — if not critical — success was 1984’s Gremlins, as is its 1990 sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch. The former is a cute and cuddly big budget affair on one hand; an incredibly dark, depressing and borderline horror film on the other. There aren’t many family pleasing films that detail father figures dying in chimneys and left unfound for months, after all. And the latter is sequel that does everything but scream at the viewer that sequels are inferior cash grabs devoid of art while simultaneously throwing everything that Dante and a fleet of the most talented FX guys and animators can invent at the screen, including Chuck Jones coming out of retirement and an insane Hulk Hogan cameo (look, any movie where Paul Bartel asks for the Hulkster’s help dealing with unruly Gremlins in a movie theater demands numerous rewatches).
1998’s Small Soldiers is, on the surface, all about war. And again — it’s a picture at war with itself. GloboTech Industries — no relation to GloboChem, despite David Cross’s appearance in the film — has acquired the Heartland Toy Company. CEO Gil Mars (Dennis Leary) demands toys that play back, so he selects two toylines — Irwin Wayfair’s (the aforementioned David Cross) Gorgonites and Larry Benson’s (Jay Mohr) Commando Elite — and combines them into one storyline of forces at war with one another. Thanks to a tight deadline, safety testing is ignored and Benson uses GloboTech’s overly powerful X1000 microprocessor to be part of the toys — which makes them self-aware. Trivia note — the stolen password that Benson uses is Gizmo, a reference, of course, to Gremlins.
There’s another war between perception and reality. The toys cast as the bad guys, the Gorgonites, are caring individuals who want to protect the planet, while the militaristic GI Joe-esque Commandos become the heels.So what happens when they arrive at toy stores? That’s answered when Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith, whose character is potentially named for Clayton Abernathy, GI Joe’s Duke) purchases the entire line from delivery driver Joe (Dick Miller, who appears in every one of Dante’s films). Alan discovers that the toys are living and breathing sentient beings when Archer sneaks away in his backpack. Upon returning to his dad’s store the next day, the Commando Elite have awakened and decimated the Gorgonites and the rest of the store, leaving traditional, non-mass produced toys a smoking wreck.
Alan attempts to warn the company of the malfunctioning Commando Elite, who do not understand they are just toys (the Gorgonites have accepted their fate and just want to go to Yosemite National Park, which they feel is their homeland), going on the attack and kidnapping Alan’s love interest, Christy. To defeat their militaristic foes, the Gorgonites must battle their very nature, embracing the violence they abhor.
Small Soldiers is a strange film, a near spiritual sequel to Gremlins in that small terrors come to life to battle in the full sized real world. But it’s unsure whether of its audience and what it wants to be, a fact that Dante himself admitted: “Originally I was told 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.” Kenner made the tie-in action figures, albeit for a movie that condemns the toy industry for embracing militaristic conflict over peaceful learning. And the Burger King Kids Meals were controversial as the film was to have a PG rating, instead of the PG-13 it received.
It’s also a blockbuster that, instead of being relentlessly driven to make money by playing to the lowest common denominator, goes way deep in its references to past films and themes. Plus, the casting is based on who works best for the film versus who sells tickets, a Dante trademark. Tommy Lee Jones may voice the leader of the Commando Elite, Chip Hazard, but Arnold Schwarzenegger was Dante’s original choice (and the rest of the team would have been filled out by the entire cast of Predator). Instead, the surviving cast members of The Dirty Dozen — George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim Brown — were cast. Richard Jaeckel sadly died before filming began and Charles Bronson refused to lend his voice to a cartoon. The Gorgonites are voiced by Frank Langella (who knows toy tie-ins well, thanks to his role as Skeletor in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe) and the entire Spinal Tap crew of Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest. Even better, there are references aplenty to past Dante works, including Robert Picardo’s character, Ralph Quist, sharing the same last name as his character in The Howling, Eddie Quist.
Small Soldiers may have NASCAR, fast food and toy tie-ins, but it feels like a deeply personal film that savors biting the hand that fed the beast that financed it. It may be many things, all at once, but above all, it does not commit the most grievous of all movie sins. It is never, ever boring.
This was originally written for an as yet unpublished zine.