2016 is finally here ladies and gentlemen and I’m welcoming it with open arms. Another year, another drawer full of memories for Culture Crossfire. What have I got in store for you in my first editorial of the new year? Why the movie that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be of course, who remembers Small Soldiers?
Remember when Michael Bay rejuvenated the Transformers franchise and interjected humans in the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons? Well, before that happened, a small flick in the late 90s attempted to do the same thing, but instead of big, bulking robots, they used toys. Just like the days when franchises like G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-Man, and Power Rangers made a killing not just from their respective television shows but off merchandising deals as well, this film tried to do something similar with a fresh, new idea.
The movie in question, Small Soldiers, was an action flick released in the summer of 1998. It created a completely new universe and an array of characters in a throwback to our 80s cartoon heroes. It tells the story of the war between the human Commando Elite and the alien Gorgonites with two teenagers and their families caught in the middle.
Two toymakers are ordered by the new CEO of their company to create realistic, human-like action figures to market to kids. Feeling pressured and wanting to impress, one of them foolishly orders munitions chips to be implanted into the new figures giving them a mind of their own. The toys run in two sets. First are the Commando Elite, an army of military fighters who are led by Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones). On the other side of the spectrum are their enemies, the Gorgonites, who their hellbent on destroying. The Gorgonites are a pack of friendly otherworldly creatures who try to seek out their motherland and are headed by the soft spoken, Archer (voiced by Frank Langella). New kid in town, Alan, doesn’t fit in well in his new surroundings and his father’s toy store is fledging. Once he gets wind of these hot new figurines, he encourages the delivery man to loan him a set before their official release, hoping it would make the store money. Inevitably, the dolls bust out of their packaging and stalk Alan at his home. At first, Alan’s parents don’t believe him about the toys having human capabilities but when they’re captured and have their lives threatened, it’s up to Alan to aid the Gorgonites in their fight. When the severity of their creations becomes known, the two toymakers try to put an end to the plastic warriors.
Despite the fact that Small Soldiers is about toys coming to life, this ain’t no Toy Story. It’s rated PG-13 for its violence. It blurs the line between family friendly and balls out summer action movie numerous times which confused a lot of viewers, especially the more younger ones. Chip and his gang are actually pretty maniacal, at one point even stabbing Alan in the hand.
Director Joe Dante, who’s responsible for giving us this actionfest also sat in the director’s chair for another film about tiny creatures wreaking havoc in a quiet neighborhood 14 years prior. You might have heard of it, it’s called Gremlins. While that movie made huge numbers at the box office and spawned a sequel, Small Soldiers wasn’t that lucky. While it made a decent amount of money back from moviegoers, reviews were generally mixed and the lack of buzz scrapped any plans for a sequel or franchise. The legend that was Small Soldiers lived and died with this one picture.
To be fair, the movie boasted quite the cast. Comedians Denis Leary, Jay Mohr, David Cross, and the late Phil Hartman all ham it up to perfection and try to take a script as ridiculous as it is and try their hardest to make it believable. Gregory Smith who is probably best known as Sport, Harriet Welsh’s buddy in Harriet the Spy plays our main hero Alan while a post-Interview With the Vampire, pre-Spider-Man Kirsten Dunst assumes the role of his love interest.
The merchandising for this one was insane. I guess for a movie about plastic dolls waging war, you couldn’t expect anything less. Action figures, vehicles, playsets, collectibles, and video games were just a small taste of the inventory of cash that was poured into the licensing deals for this movie. You have to believe it made a nice mint on these items alone even though the movie underwhelmed.
Small Soldiers also might have been the first time that I ever heard Led Zeppelin. Communication Breakdown blasts during the scene where Christy (Dunst) and her boyfriend are captured by her Barbie ripoffs, Gwendy dolls, who the Commando Elite bring to life and turn against her. The taking of the Gwendys was reminiscent of psychotic toy maker, Sid, from the aforementioned Toy Story.
While I was transitioning out of the phase in my life where playing with toys was “uncool” at age 12, I remember being really hyped for this. My father was actually supposed to take me to see it but on the day we were supposed to head to the theater, he overslept! I was way more upset than I should have been at him for that. My mother came to the rescue months later and bought me the VHS tape when it was released. It was probably one of the last videos I ever owned. I watched it quite often throughout middle school. It became the go-to film to watch on a boring Sunday afternoon. I really enjoyed it as a kid and even still find it watchable to this day. There’s tons wrong with it but I find it’s a decent flick with some above average action. You have to love Phil Hartman in his last movie ever and David Cross playing a helpless nerd.
Another thing I have to give this movie credit for is that it inspired probably my favorite fast food item of all time. I’m definitely not a big eater of McDonald’s or Burger King but when the latter introduced the Rodeo Burger to tie in with Small Soldiers, it made for some good eating in my younger year. It was a cheeseburger with onion rings and barbecue sauce and at the time, I thought it was the most ingenious burger to ever hit the scene. They discontinued it in New York over a decade ago but I’ve heard it’s still served in other cities. Boy, the things I would do to get my hands on one today…