Hot on the heels of Disney’s Toy Story, DreamWorks released Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers. Where Toy Story offered its audiences only superficial sensations of nostalgia, Small Soldiers delivers a scathing parody of Corporate America and a humorous analysis of war in the media. Regretfully, Toy Story has achieved an iconic status while Small Soldiers has remained an artifact of the late 1990s.
Like Gremlins, Small Soldiers turns the standard accoutrements of childhood fantasy into the stuff of Drive-In horror films. The perverting of innocent fantasy has remained a staple in Dante’s work, though it rarely takes on the multiple dimensions that he allows in Small Soldiers.
The robot toys, programmed to think and learn as advanced forms of artificial intelligence, act out the drama of their own pre-existing narrative that originates with their manufacturers (Jay Mohr, David Cross and Denis Leary). The Commando Elite figures ruthlessly pursue their objective; to eliminate the entire monster race known as the Gorgonites. Gregory Smith and Kirsten Dunst play Alan and Christy, two adolescents who are inadvertently drawn into the conflict of the toys. In this, Dante presents his audience with spectators (Alan and Christy) who must forfeit their privileged perspective and become active contributors to deciding the outcome of this conflict. This process of spectatorship recalls the “movie within a movie” device, but without being on the nose or overtly reflexive in the execution of its analysis.
But Dante does instill his “toy” characters with a sense of place in cinema history, so that various signifiers allow the audience to further contextualize the characters without making a conscious effort. With the toys, Dante recreates shots from Patton, Rambo, and Toy Story. In addition, Dante serves up familiar music cues from Apocalypse Now to accentuate to action in sequences. Finally, Dante has cast Dirty Dozen veterans George Kennedy, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown and Clint Walker as the voices of the Commando Elite (whose leader Chip Hazard is voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) whilst filling out the voices of the Gorgonites with This Is Spinal Tap cast members Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest. All of these components, dredged up from the history of America’s Pop Culture, become a portrait of our popular conscious in the media. Therefore, the toys themselves become totems of the media, whose interactions with the human characters (spectators) parody our own. Where Dante’s characters take an initiative, it saddens me to say that we as a nation do not.
That leads me to the political ideologies of Small Soldiers. Alan and Christy, along with their parents (Phil Hartman, Kevin Dunn, Ann Magnuson and Wendy Schaal) are reluctant to join in the conflict at all; in fact, the parent characters resist until the final twenty minutes of the film. Naïve optimism or positive projection, it’s not for me to say why Dante’s characters take action, but their hesitance certainly speaks to a rather ugly flaw in ourselves as audience members and fellow spectators. And I should point out that at this point the term spectator no longer strictly applies to the film’s audience within or without, instead it is all inclusive of all of those who take in any sort of media broadcast if it be news footage of Iraq or just Karl Blau on the radio. This is the context in which we as a nation are so dangerously ambivalent.
This ambivalence has been linked to a variety of causes ranging from violence on T.V. to Watergate. Perhaps the greatest act of ambivalence or ignorance perpetrated by both the human characters in the film and ourselves pertains to our relationship with big corporations. Anyone one who has seen Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth or any Michael Moore film is aware of corporate America’s role in legislature, the economy, and military issues, not to mention presidential elections. Yet these are not pleasant facts, and are therefore rarely addressed or considered on a routine basis (we are just spectators). Corporations make toys and guns; just like in Small Soldiers, and that is, perhaps, the most unsettling aspect of the film.
The ideologies of the characters in the film are another matter. The Commando Elite are Fascistic warmongers, ignorantly pursuing their objective beyond reason. The Gorgonites Alan and Christy are peaceful, acting only when it is a matter of self-defense. This relationship is a standard in American cinema and story telling, going back as far as the Stamp Act. But Dante ties a more dangerous ignorance into his Commando Elite. They do not even attempt to reason or understand their opponents, serving as caricatures of Government corruption and genocide, Waco and Vietnam. To further instill this analogy into the audience, Dante falls back upon age profiling. If the corrupt government is represented by the Commando Elite, the pacifists are represented by the Gorgonites, the militant student movement by Alan and Christy, and the “let’s just mind our own business” middle aged demographic, is of course, the parents. By doing this, Dante makes the political plight of his characters accessible to the young people of 1998, as well as the baby boomer parents.
All things considered, for a children’s action flick, Small Soldiers delivers some sophisticated cinema. As an artifact of our culture as a whole, beyond 1998, I believe this film will become more enduring and meaningful with the passage of time than Toy Story. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.