(PG-13, DreamWorks SKG, 108 mins., theatrical release date: July 10, 1998)
Previously on Mind of Frames, I lauded the "Mega Madness" that was Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Joe Dante's poorly-received but uproarious sequel to the movie which gave him Hollywood clout. One of the things I forgot to mention was that Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas reunited a few years later with the charming Matinee. Haas, you may recall, co-wrote the essential youth movies Over the Edge and Tex with Tim "River's Edge" Hunter, and in Haas, Dante found a worthy successor to John Sayles, who scripted Dante's inaugural Piranha and The Howling. It proved to be another two-picture wonder of a collaboration, though, as Gremlins 2 and Matinee each got poor box-office returns. Haas would never write another feature script again, and Dante was consigned to television projects for a spell.
Enter Steven Spielberg again to renew Dante's mainstream potential, having shifted studios from Amblin to DreamWorks and inciting direct competition with Disney/Pixar in several releases. The late 1990s, after all, was when DreamWorks' Antz and Pixar's A Bug's Life vied for the hearts of junior entomologists. Also on the DreamWorks slate was Small Soldiers, a live-action "send-up" of their rival's benchmark of a blockbuster, Toy Story.
As far as subversive hired guns go, Dante showed Spielberg twice that his aim was true. But whereas Gremlins 2 made a sacred cow of its beloved original and ground it up into a juicy burger, Small Soldiers is processed cheese all the way. The screenplay feels distressingly like a multiple cook crash since it credits three different sets of scribes, including Adam Rifkin (The Chase, Mouse Hunt) and the team of Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Shrek), which is all you need to know that this was punched-up to low places.
It could've been a hero on the same sardonic, satirically-gifted level as the Gremlins films. The premise is that a modest little toy company is now the subdivision of a military conglomerate called GloboTech, whose new family-friendly image juxtaposes bombers and babies. When transferring employees Larry Benson (Jay Mohr) and Irwin Wayfair (David Cross, who deserved a crack at this script given Mr. Show was airing on HBO about this time) pitch new toy ideas to GloboTech CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary), Mars demands these playthings be able to play back. Coerced to oblige in a three-month pinch, the more go-getting Larry orders surplus units of the X-1000 microprocessor, a munitions chip, as hardware for both his G.I. Joe-style Army dolls, the Commando Elite, and Irwin's Gorgonites, who are their alien nemeses.
Meanwhile, in bucolic Winslow Corners, Ohio, teenager Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) is left to take care of his father's namby-pamby toy store, "The Inner Child," while he's attending a small business seminar. He strikes a deal with the delivery man (the requisite but reliable Dick Smith) to divert some of the inventory in his direction, figuring it would make some easy money to help keep the place open. Maybe it might even help bridge the divide between Alan, who has cultivated an exaggerated reputation as a delinquent, and his beleaguered daddy Stuart (Kevin Dunn, who would later essay an even dumber-downed version of this sitcom staple for the goddamn Transformers series).
Smith plays this Everydork to the best of his abilities though he looks way too milquetoast for all the underwritten teen angst he has to shoulder. Contrivances aside, Alan is more prodigal son than problem child, and whatever conflict he and his father have is utterly inconsequential. Just as preordained is the arrival of neighborly love interest Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst), a sassy, seasoned older girl looking for her kid brother's birthday gift. Their sputtering courtship revolves around a mutual dislike of "Family of Five" (that's Party of Five if you're an actual ‘90s kid and not some hacky archetype) and love for Led Zeppelin (which, as an ex junior high brat myself, I can fully relate to). But, of course, Christy is a footballer's squeeze and Alan is forced to play his romantic cards sparingly.
Love is secondary to war, however, once Commando Elite Major Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) punches out of his packaging and rallies his plastic brigade in destructive pursuit of the benign Gorgonites, whose leader Alan has taken home with him. Archer (voice of Frank Langella) makes a private connection with the kid and soon the Commandos are gunning after Alan. Since the Gorgonites have been programmed to cowardice, the remaining extraterrestrial exiles are scooped up from a dumpster by Alan, including a Daffy doppelganger named Insaniac and a cycloptic cutie named Oculus. The funniest movie reference in the film is when Alan's TV is airing 1958's The Crawling Eye, which the one-eyed wonder then glues itself to.
The rest of the cinephile pandering is caught between two extremes. Shrewd voice casting on the dolls' part means that the Commando Elites are performed by The Dirty Dozen veterans Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Jim Brown, and Clint Walker, with Bruce Dern taking over for the deceased Richard Jaeckel. The principal Gorgonites are in turn spoken for by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, the legendary Spinal Tap trio. Their dialogue is ripe with pop culture allusions, encompassing everything from Patton to Titanic. The most subtle battalion of one-liners stems from how the Commando Elites take their war games dead seriously even for playthings, screaming "Medic!" when mortally wounded and getting noble eulogies: "His battery has run out, but his memory will keep going and going."
Major Hazard's increasing intelligence and adaptive skills spur his team onto more menacing and dangerous strategies, eventually involving taking Christy as a hostage and finally cornering both the Abernathy and Fimple clans under one besieged roof. And yet Dante's uncanny knack for making flesh-and-blood cartoon chaos isn't as potent here. The scorn many heaped at Dante for pushing disturbing images to children in the Gremlins films at least tempered by a giddy, inventive gusto in the staging, and there was better humor to them, too. Small Soldiers feels ‘roided up on cheap testosterone and let loose without much of a game plan other than the diminished novelty of little things causing big trouble in small towns.
The centerpiece of Small Soldiers is when Hazard tears the microchip from the brain of fallen soldier Nick Nitro and harnesses it to bring Frankenstein-style life to Christy's collection of Gwendies. Proud to be serving as cannon fodder, these Barbie surrogates are then stripped down to camo bikinis and attack with the kind of pun-damaged ditziness that made me genuinely fear Akiva Goldsman was ghost-writing this. Never mind the bizarrely fantastical choice to have Christy still in possession of underage toys whilst jamming to Led Zeppelin and Rush, there is a tonal dissonance in this device which is downright numbing, not to mention serious misjudgment in regards to the satire.
Christy's Gwendy dolls are each given specific accessories and costumes to make them look like Greek soldiers, Cleopatra, Jackie Onassis, Sally Ride, the Swiss Miss mascot, etc. You'd think there would be more ingenuity once they come to life than to just reduce them to condescending Valley Girl accents, giggly sadism and fetishistic objectification, but that's all they do after they're activated. They tie down Christy, pounce upon her useless boyfriend and make lame quip after lame quip, all the while half-naked and deformed. The pint-sized antagonists of Small Soldiers barely stack up against the memorably unhinged Gremlins who once mauled Santa Claus impersonators and rocketed an old lady out of her house. The worst that happens here is that the boyfriend gets his pants leg torched and Benedict Arnolds his way out of the plot.
For all of its middling attempts to be madcap and macabre, Small Soldiers, like Gremlins 2: The New Batch, has the advanced sophistication of mechanical effects on its side. Whereas Rick Baker proved invaluable in building upon the puppetry and conceptions of the creatures in the 1990 film, here Stan Winston and his team mix computer graphics and radio-controlled animatronics to make an impressive illusion of lifelike figurines. And once again, all credit to the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Frank "Skeletor" Langella and the great vocal talents I mentioned before for giving them fairly amusing personalities. Jones, in particular, doesn't ham it up as insufferably like he did with his Harvey Dent from Batman Forever and is more welcome with his wryly macho patois.
Alas, there are many clear casualties in terms of wasted talent. Aside from the two young leads, a visibly typecast Denis Leary and the rakish Joe Dante, himself, I neglected to mention one Phil Hartman, in his cinematic epitaph here as Christy's tech-savvy daddy Phil (seriously?!), because I watch him and all I can hear is Troy McClure egotistically reminding audiences to remember him from this mediocrity. The only real comic chemistry to be found is between MVPs/POWs Jay Mohr and David Cross as the rival toymakers, whose research into the dangers of the X-1000 microchip brings them to its creator Ralph, played by Dante repertoire scene-stealer Robert Picardo as a disgraced inventor turned quarantine manager who used to work under the Pentagon.
Once Ralph designed these microchips to grant "actual intelligence" to smart bombs, now they spur on "psychological warfare" involving Spice Girls songs. Talk about a defective product; you know, wouldn't it have been much funnier and apt if the Commandos blared Aqua's "Barbie Girl," instead? Speaking of a Cheap Trick not done right, I watched the film again knowing that "Surrender" was on the soundtrack listing, and they didn't even use that power-pop gem for laughs. The only songs you hear in the movie with real clarity are mostly re-purposed at the end in trendy hip-hop remixes, such as "War," "Love Is a Battlefield" and "Another One Bites the Dust." I'm confused as to whether I'm being sold a movie, a compilation album (which is better off skipped in favor of Jerry Goldsmith's proper film score), a collection of Chip Hazard-centered tie-in merchandise, or a flame-broiled Rodeo Burger.
Small Soldiers is a sad, strange little film, and it has my pity.