Published July 1, 1998
Small Soldiers, directed by Joe Dante, is typical of Hollywood attitudes towards military values and military people. Even the grief of soldiers for their dead comrades in arms is made fun of as the leader of the toy soldiers brought to life by computer wizardry pronounces over one of his men that: “Nick Nitro’s battery has run out, but his memory will keep going, and going, and going.” What a laugh!
The film’s heroes are the Abernathys, a gentle family of hippies manqué. Stuart, the daddy (Kevin Dunn), is the kind of guy who still drives a VW beetle and runs a toy shop called “The Inner Child” — which (of course) doesn’t sell violent toys. The bad guys are (a) an evil defense contractor called Globotech and run by Gil Mars (Dennis Leary) which takes over a toy company called Heartland Play Systems, (b) a Heartland employee called Larry (Jay Mohr) who, having escaped downsizing, tries to suck up to Mars by designing some toy soldiers that make use of real military technology manufactured by Globotech and (c) an arrogant technophile called Phil (Phil Hartman) who lives next door to the hippie family. His daughter, Christy (Kirsten Dunst), is a rebel against her insensitive, environmentally abusive parents and takes an interest in the son of the hippie family, Alan (Gregory Smith).
Alan, who has a history of minor troublemaking in his former school, which has caused his family to relocate, is put in charge of the shop while dad goes out of town. When a delivery truck pulls up and Alan sees the cool new soldiers from Heartland toys, he decides secretly to defy his father’s edict against violent toys and sell a few. But these are the first of the bunch, and no one yet knows how dangerous they are. The soldiers, called the Commando Elite and commanded by Major Chip Hazard (voice of Tommy Lee Jones) are programmed for real warfare against the Gorgonites, a collection of gentle E.T.-like creatures (“The Gorgonites are peaceful,” their apelike leader, Archer, tells Alan) who are part animal, part human and part Disney animation. Here the monsters, who look like something dreamed up on an acid trip, are the good guys and the American soldiers the bad.
All these creatures, since they have the latest in computer technology in them (“not artificial intelligence,” says the embittered inventor of the chip that Larry has put in them: “real intelligence”), come to life. The commandos are gung-ho fascists (“There will be no mercy,” is one of Major Chip’s programmed sayings) intent on exterminating “the Gorgonite scum” while the harmless, lovable, madcap Gorgonites only want to learn from Alan’s Encarta computer-encyclopedia. They know that they have been programmed for defeat, and so content themselves with doing “what Gorgonites do best” — which is hiding. The miniature warfare thus takes on a life of its own, and the soldiers with their super-sophisticated chips inside, make use of makeshift but deadly weapons fashioned from household implements rather than the toy weapons provided by the manufacturer.
As this is a children’s movie, you know that no one is actually going to be killed, but the warfare carried out by the miniature soldiers would otherwise appear terrifying, especially when they make recruits out of Christy’s vast collection of “Gwendy” dolls. These are somehow given cloned chips from the Commando Elite, and turn into crazed vamps whose fearsome attacks are accompanied by the kinds of vacuous things (“I broke a nail” etc) that feminists imagine are constantly being said by traditionally minded women. In other words, what we have here is a war between New Agers and feminists allied with the gentle Gorgonites on the one hand and the Commando-Nazis intent on genocide on the other. Guess who is going to win. Guess which set of values is being held up for the admiration of our children. Guess what kind of soldiers we are likely to have in the U.S. Army of the 21st century.