(DreamWorks) Here's a great film trivia question: What movie features David Cross, Denis Leary, Kirsten Dunst, Phil Hartman, Tommy Lee Jones, Christina Ricci, Sarah Michelle Gellar, the cast of The Dirty Dozen, and the cast of This is Spinal Tap? Most people won't have any idea, but those who answer “Small Soldiers!” will most likely follow up by gushing about how much they love it.
It's hard not to get swept up in Small Soldiers, because it's the kind of film that embodies a very specific time in American cultural history – in this case, the 1990s. This was a special time when idealism still reigned, computer graphics were still amazing, every movie had a hip-hop song on its soundtrack, and David Cross was still trying to be a serious actor. Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen had just formed DreamWorks, a new kind of studio with ambitions to foster creativity and artistic vision.
Small Soldiers was the sixth film produced by DreamWorks, and it certainly presents a unique vision. It's like a less sentimental, more subversive Toy Story or a more surreal Home Alone. In many ways, it feels like the family films of the '80s – the same ones that Super 8 called back to, with their themes of small-town innocence up against big-business cynicism.
The story begins with toy developers Irwin Wayfair and Larry Benson (Cross and Jay Mohr) scrambling to keep their jobs after their company is bought by multinational conglomerate GloboTech Industries, whose CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary) demands a more exciting line of toys. Dismissing Wayfair's designs for the Gorgonites – a goofy group of peaceful creatures – he opts for Benson's Commando Elite – a squad of extreme soldiers. He also commands the pair to make the toys walk and talk the way they do in the commercials. When Wayfair asks if the toys might not be a little violent, Mars replies, “Let's not call it violence. Let's call it action.”
Desperate to please, Benson requisitions an order of military-grade computer chips, and installs them in the toys. The toys then make their way to a little shop owned by Stuart Abernathy (Kevin Dunn), whose son Alan (Gregory Smith) unwittingly lets them loose in an effort to prove that he's not the screw-up everyone thinks he is. With the help of pretty neighbor girl Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst), he must fight a war against the Commando Elite and try to protect the Gorgonites.
The film is quite slyly satirical of American militarism, as exemplified by a scene in which Major Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) struts in front of a flag-shaped jigsaw puzzle and delivers a Patton-style speech to the troops composed of nothing but strung-together clichés from war movies. The Commando Elite have no reason to fight the Gorgonites except that they're programmed to – a telling detail. Then there's Phil Fimple (Phil Hartman in his last major role), who lounges in bed watching war movies on his big-screen TV, and casually states, “I think World War II is my favorite war.”
Small Soldiers is dedicated to Hartman, and Chip Hazard is named after one of Hartman's favorite characters, private eye Chick Hazard. However, he's just one of a crowd of funny and talented people in the cast. They each bring little quirks to the fast-paced narrative, lending the film's world an expansive quality.
Upon release, Small Soldiers faced criticism that it was too violent for kids, but the film's message is clearly anti-war. Like Barry Levinson's Toys, it takes huge themes of imagination vs. conformity and conflict vs. cooperation and shoehorns them into a charming little tale of unconventional people in extraordinary circumstances. If you feel like having some fun without switching off your brain – or if you want to recapture the way it felt to go to the movies in the mid-'90s – give Small Soldiers a look.
For Fans Of: Toy Story, Gremlins, Toys, Back to the Future, Avatar
Why We Like It: a cast packed with exceptional talent, fun visual style, satirical themes that go far beyond the average kids' film