An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.
Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on board. Small Soldiers is razor sharp moment-by-moment, and is irresistible for it, but it encumbers its main character with a generic coming-of-age plotline.
Consequently, without a strong pulse at its core, it can’t hope to be in the upper pantheon of the director’s work. This places it in the company of his other ’90s (cinema) film, Matinee. There too, the coming of age/teen romance plot feels slight and insubstantial next to the pith and vim of the movie nostalgia that informs the ostensible B-plot (the director’s habit of juxtaposing streaks of sentiment and jet-black humour sometimes works perfectly, at others the latter is left in pole position by a considerable margin). Neither picture is able match the director’s ’80s output, but these things are relative; Small Soldiers remains a hugely entertaining, clever little (but not inexpensive) movie.
It’s perhaps surprising the director ended up with the gig. It happened post- the demise of The Phantom (the studio decided to go with a “straight” take, without modifying the script accordingly). Who should come to the rescue, but old protector Spielberg and his fledgling studio DreamWorks. This, despite the decidedly uncommercial and unhinged treatment Dante gave Gremlins 2. The ‘berg must surely have thought twice about his decision and loyalties, and Dante’s inability following Gremlins to hit box office gold no matter what he tried (several of his subsequent pictures did reasonable business, but none of them began to approach Gremlins’ success).
The first year of DreamWorks had been a fizzle; The Peacemaker and Amistad underperformed, and only Mouse Hunt, unleashing Gore Verbinski on the movie world, amassed a sizeable return investment. Fortunately for Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen, the summer of ’98 turned things around. First came Deep Impact, which didn’t have the craterous effect of the same season’s Armageddon but still turned a sizeable profit (a repeat run competing premises came with Antz at the end of the year, taking second place to Pixar’s insect animation A Bug’s Life; shockingly, Pixar is yet to milk that picture for its sequel potential, but it can only be a matter of time, desperation, and creative oblivion).
Ending the summer was Saving Private Ryan, of which more later. In between, the unimaginatively titled Small Soldiers was the studio’s sixth release. It was unveiled on the same weekend as Lethal Weapon 4, to mixed-appreciative reviews but only middling box office (it entered at No.3, below Armageddon and just above Dr. Dolittle, the latter offering toothlessly digestible family fare; the edgier Small Soldiers might well have been a parental turn-off).
It was planned to be edgier still, perhaps drawing even closer parallels to Gremlins; Chris Columbus original vision for the 1984 hit was an all-out horror movie. Small Soldiers had been envisaged as appealing to teenagers, so perhaps it had more of a Lost Boys vibe than the insipid lead we got ((apologies to Dante for invoking the spectre of Joel Schumacher). Somewhere during the shooting process the content was toned down. DreamWorks with an ever-vigilant eye on sponsorship at the expense of artistic endeavour, issued an edict that it should be aimed more towards children. The violence was curtailed and it was positioned as more family-friendly. Not family-friendly enough, as there were still complaints.
Other issues also affected the release; Phil Hartman, who had appeared in Dante’s TV movie The Second Civil War (Hartman steals Soldiers whenever he’s on screen), was shot dead by his wife six weeks before the picture was released, which lead to some minor changes. Another tragedy also had consequences, this time to the marketing. Kip Kinkel shot his parents and then went on the rampage at his high school (this was only a week after Hartman’s murder). Burger King elected not to provide the tie-in action figure Kip Killigan as a result. The other alteration was more cosmetic; a poster featuring Chip Hazard holding a gun sideways, facing the camera, was altered to remove the gun (this cover was used for the home video release).
Despite the changes in tone, Dante refers to the picture as “still vaguely subversive”. After all, it comes armed with an anti-military message yet delights in the mayhem caused by serious firepower. He’s fond of saying, when asked about a third outing for his famous Mogwai, he has already made Gremlins 3, and Dante clearly saw the connections – and the satirical possibilities – when he signed on. If Soldiers lacks the sheer unbridled anarchy, and the rattling trajectory pace and particular atmosphere of his earlier classic, there’s a similar indulgence in the comic possibilities and sight gags that come with a special effects heavy production.
The project was conceived as being mostly reliant on the wizardry of Stan Winston’s animatronic puppets, but it became evident that the need for CGI to fill in the gaps would be more encompassing than envisaged. Rather than sixty-seventy percent puppetry with ILM providing the remainder, the final ratio was the reverse. The results are seamless, however. It’s one of those ’90s productions (Jurassic Park being another) that puts (most) modern use of CGI to shame. It helps of course that design work is fairly straightforward, dealing with plastic rather than skin or fur, but that shouldn’t detract from the achievement.
Where Gremlins offers a fairly broad reflection of “us” in the titular characters (Mr Futterman identifies them with foreign devils, but he’s clearly earmarked as endearingly racist and out-of-touch), the targets in Small Soldiers are more particular and threaded through the picture. If one wonders how pointed this was in the script and how much Dante embellished, the answer is most likely quite a lot. By all accounts, the production process was difficult for reasons mentioned (“No one seemed to know exactly what they wanted”, Dante comments in Joe Dante, interviewed by Gabe Klinger). The script was rewritten during shooting by Dante and script supervisor Kathy Zatarga (in part because things weren’t making sense).
Certainly, as colourful as Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio have been subsequently (also credited are Gavin Scott and Adam Rifkin) there is little that could be called consistently satirical in their work. Of course, that may be because they’ve been at the beck-and-call of Jerry Bruckheimer for the past decade or so. Dante has cited an anti-military message, and that’s plain to see in the numerous barbs thrown towards mindless patriotism and the glorification of war (and all the war film references) but he’s far too enthused by pandemonium to take the next step and turn it into a pacifist tract.
The civilians and the mewling peaceniks (the Gorgonites) fight back when the situation calls for it. One might suggest manoeuvring the Gorgonites into such a position is reactionary and dubious in motive. The Gorgonites are as programmed to be submissive as the Commando Elite are to be carnage-loving brutes. It’s an essential problem with movies that present moral solutions through the violence; the sort of thing where the weakling rancher (or unarmed widow and child) needs John Wayne to show them what it’s like to be a real man. One might excuse this as a necessary function of storytelling, however; conflict is essential or you’re hobbled (unless you’re making Ghandi). The Gorgonites do what they need to do to defeat the threat; in the end they remain essentially nature-loving peacemakers, but they are not passive. Amusingly, it’s the humans who are shown to really relish destruction, once their bloodlust is raised.
Gil: What do soldiers need?
Gil: Enemies. Hideous, ugly guys.
Irwin: Sir, don’t you think that’s a bit violent?
Gil: Exactly. So don’t call it violent. Call it “action”. Kids love action. It sells.
But Dante reserves his main salvos for the twin blights of military machismo and big business brutality. The two perfectly intersect in the arena of children’s (well, boys’, although Dante lets the girls tap into their inner violent soul here too) penchant for playing with toys that revolve around death and destruction. The director fully understands the absurdity and how inherently unhealthy this is, but he’s not about to get up on a soapbox; it’s all far too much fun. We see this mischievousness in the toyshop Alan’s father runs; it’s called The Inner Child, and based around adults’ ideas of the nice (probably vegan), handmade toys kids should have (this despite festooning the shop with the Stars and Stripes). It’s clearly a very boring place and not at all what children actually want.
This dichotomy between the values generally represented by toys and the reluctance of parents to admit to their offspring’s aggressive intent is embraced by Globotech head Gil Hardy (Dennis Leary). He immediately recognises that parents will be hoodwinked by judicious terminology; instead of violence refer to “action”. It’s palatable, unthreatening, and parents can comfort themselves that the morals of their little darlings are unthreatened.
Gil also identifies that soldiers need enemies (not hats, as David Cross’ Irwin suggests). Although, from the trailers for the movie you would think those enemies were entirely human; it’s wall-to-wall “action” that is emphasised, inflicted by or on the Commando Elite. There isn’t a sniff of the Gorgonites (so they were effectively selling it is a pro-war movie). Notably, it’s peaceful, nerdy geek Irwin who creates the Gorgonites and there’s a simultaneous contrasting of the school bully-types that are Larry (Jay Mohr) and the Commando Elite (who, if they were real, would leave school, join up, and revel in their licence to shoot as many unarmed people as possible) with the “hideous ugly” losers on whom they wage war.
The Gorgonites also engage in flaky dreaming, the kind of head in the clouds “nonsense” that anti-war hippies would embrace (“Alan, even if you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there”; the final short, as the Gorgonites sail off in search of a mythic utopia, explicitly endorses such idealism). That said, young hero Alan (Gregory Smith) isn’t presented as a nerd (he sets schools on fire apparently, but that’s hard to countenance), even though he is fond of many of the things nerds are, but he’s sufficiently removed from the classic jock to qualify as an honourable one.
Phil: I think World War II was my favourite war.
Phil Fimple (Hartman), the Abernathys’ annoying neighbour and father to Kirsten Dunst’s Christy (for whom Alan has the hots) sums up the prevailing obliviousness to the realities of warfare; mutilation and mayhem are to be turned into a game or rated out of 10. Phil’s boorish detachment is just another side of the casual indifference seen in Gil’s corporate greed. But it’s also a dig at enthusiasts across the board; after all, the same studio (well, in co-production part) released Saving Private Ryan a couple of weeks later, a depiction of Spielberg’s favourite war being fashionably depicted as hell on earth while at once glorified as a good and just war; one to be proud of and get all nostalgic over. Jonathan Rosenbaum memorably compared the two films, to Ryan‘s disservice, at the time of their release.
Chip Hazard: Soldiers, no poor sap won a war by dying for his country. He won it by being all that he can be.
Dante incarnates his soldiers with militaristic platitudes (“We have lost the battle we will not lose the war”) but only Chip Hazard shows any “proper” soldierly qualities. And even he dispenses with them in his speech as he cherry picks meaningless and bolstering rousing pre-fight pep talk, invoking Patton against the backdrop of an American flag but puncturing the bubble of patriotic duty with a deluge of rhetoric. As delivered by Jones, keynote lines designed to encourage the troops become empty motivational catchphrases (“Are you scared? We’re all scared. You’d have to be crazy not to be scared”). And his rabble are, to a toy, scum and reprobates, the jaundiced version of corrupted US armed forces by way of The Dirty Dozen (in which the best soldiers are criminals; in Forrest Gump the best soldiers are imbeciles, but you get the idea); original Dozen George Kennedy (Brick Bazooka), Clint Walker (Nick Nitro), Ernest Borgnine (Kip Killagin), and Jim Brown (Butch Meathook) provide voices along with Dante veteran Bruce Dern as Link Static.
Brick Bazooka: Sir, I’m pretty messed up, sir.
Chip Hazard: Go ahead kid, let it out.
Macho bullshit is mercilessly torn apart. Brick loses his legs in the spokes of Alan’s bike and receives very stiff upper lip comfort from Chip. Jones’ deadpan delivery is consistently very funny; it’s a straight man persona trait he revealed fully formed in Men in Black the previous summer. Since he only speaks in sound bites (“Son, you can be a prisoner or a casualty. It’s up to you”) he serves to undermine the shallow military mind-set, one that requires no reflection only obedience.
If Chip observes the formal etiquette his leadership (he admonishes Jonathan Bouck’s Brad with “You maggot! An officer and a gentleman does not strike a lady” after the latter has seen off a crazed Gwendy Doll), his crew are less discerning. They’re the raping and pillaging types who see women as objects for their taking (of the Gwendy Dolls we hear reactions that include “Fully poseable. Oh, dolly!” and “R’N’R, sir”), although Chip is not so upstanding that he won’t use them to fill the ranks (one is even called “Cannon Fodder Gwendy”).
The involvement of the large corporation dovetails neatly with such practical cynicism. Leary has had mixed success on screen, but here his natural acidity finds a strong outlet. GloboTech comes on like the family-friendly version of Robocop’s Omni Consumer Products, a conglomerate out to have its fingers in as many pies as possible, such virtues as decency, responsibility, and civic-mindedness be damned. Taking a page out of Robocop’s promotional interludes, we are introduced to GloboTech in an advert discussing tomorrow’s most exciting market sector, “introducing advanced battlefield technology into consumer products for the whole family!”
Shots transition from battlefield tanks to a happy family opening Christmas presents. It’s quite audaciously cheeky. You can all-but hear Dante cackling at the utter amorality and ambivalence required in threading military hardware together with household goods and taking pride in it as an accomplishment to boot. It’s all just business after all; indeed, playing with toys that invoke the hardware used in conflict is just sensible vertical integration.
What’s more, their products offer “the same high quality standards as demanded by the US defence sector at public sector prices”. Most mirthfully, when it becomes clear that the toy line isn’t going to work out, Gil instructs his minions to “Add a few zeroes to the end of that number, and get in touch with our military division”. Value equates to the amount someone is willing to pay for something, wholly unrelated to how much it actually costs to produce. There’s a sneaking prescience to the purpose-built Commando Elite. We’ve already been told GloboTech “can make missiles that can seek out one unlucky bastard 7,000 miles away and stick a nuclear warhead right up his ass”. Now Gil’s aware of “some rebels in south America who are going to find these guys very entertaining”. They’re a more efficient resource than today’s proliferation of unmanned drones, even. No need for messy human casualties (on the good guys’ side, obviously) when machines can slay the enemy. Chip even uses media language to make messy killing sound more palatable (“We must neutralise these civilians”).
The “little” people are inevitably where the sympathies lie. Dante is sometimes sentimental, but as often he pulls the rug from under his protagonists; small town homilies and homemade industry have been evident in his work since Gremlins. The average Joe-guzzling engine of progress signalled the opening of Gremlins 2, and the Peltzers themselves, those bastions of free thinking, are sucked up within the soulless the corporate machine (Billy’s creativity is first stymied by the banks and then by big business).
The warning signs are there with Dick Miller’s obligatory cameo as a deliveryman (“Pretty soon everything in the world is going to be owned by one giant corporation – and then it’s goodbye, microbreweries”). Later we are told “Corporations – the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is screwing up” and Irwin (Cross, coming across as something of a young Robert Picardo, with whom he shares a scene, is best known for playing Tobias Funke, “Analrapist” in Arrested Development) is correct to express doubts about the buyout of his toy company (GloboTech “just care about profits”). But Dante isn’t presenting a paean to Jimmy Stewart-esque values either (Irwin and Gil’s former company was disingenuously named Heartland). He just wants to make us think, and laugh of course. Why else would he have Gil respond derisively to the suggestion that the Gorgonite toys could be instructive to children (“Did you say learn? Next!”)
Gil: Can they, er, really do that? The thing where he punches his way out of the box?
Irwin is aghast to learn from Larry that “You put munitions chips in toys?” but he is an innocent in an industry built on deceit. There’s a perverse honesty to Gil’s upfront dismissiveness; the Commando Elite advertising claims abilities the toys are unable to enact, but under Gil’s tutelage they can (“What if these toys actually could talk? What if they actually could walk? What if they could actually kick ass?”) Consequently, when Chip Hazard comes to life, he re-enacts the very fake action in the adverts for real. And the announcement, “We’re not toys, we’re action figures” is a subtle dig at kids who don’t want to be labelled childish.
Stuart: What about the pain and anguish… Humiliation – the humiliation? I don’t think even you have enough money to pay for that. Okay – maybe you do.
The calculated quality is at is most endearingly brazen in the final scenes. This is, after all, a movie where the bad guys win. Things go wrong, but no one is brought to account. Gil even makes a profit. How often do we see a picture where this kind of thing happens, where greed (overtly) wins out? All Gil has to do is write a series of cheques and the indignant victims shut up. Money is the great leveller, ensuring silence about injustice and illegality. If Small Soldiers is far from Dante’s best movie, it might have the best ending of any of all his pictures.
Insaniac: Hey there’s a dead crow up here. Hey I’m kidding.
Movie-referencing joker that he is, Dante went to a trio of oddballs to play the oddball “Gorgonite scum”. That is, except for Archer, leader of the Gorgonites; Frank Langella’s silky gravitas informs that diminutive hero. Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest, Michael McKean (who, in particular, seems like a natural for the Joe Dante Repertory Company but has only appeared in his The Haunted Lighthouse short outside of this) and Harry Shearer voice Archer’s freaky entourage.
Dante indicated much of their material was improvised, which would certainly fit. Guest is Slamfist (the dim-watt, lumbering Gorgonite; he’s the one who calls out “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” and there’s more than a hint of Laughton’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame about his visage) and Scratch-It (Punch It’s little sidekick; orange with two legs to get around but no body). Michael McKean is Insaniac (the most memorable of the supporting Gorgonites, a whirling dervish of cracked one-liners – “A regular Arnold Benedict!” – and high-speed spinning) and Troglokhan/Freakenstein (“Alas, poor Troglokhan”; he is destroyed by the Commando Elite but reborn as Freakenstein – “Some Assembly Required”). Harry Shearer only voices Punch It, the gentle rhino-like Gorgonite.
The Gorgonites are both the Gizmos and the Gremlins of Small Soldiers (perhaps more accurately, the oddball assortment of Mogwais in Gremlins 2). As with Gizmo, Archer bonds with his human protector (“Greetings, Alan Now Shut Up”); he takes in mankind’s activities via the Internet whereas Gizmo simply watched TV, before “introducing” him to a host of his fellows. Gizmo likes the family dog, while Archer gets on with the cat. Like Gizmo, the Gorgonites are meek and mild (doing what the Gorgonites do best – they are hiding). So too the bad guys are released overnight, with a terrible mess discovered come morning, and Billy/Alan is in some way to blame for what befalls his town/neighbourhood.
Dante follows a similar path with his human protagonist. It’s just a shame Smith is something of charisma vacuum. He’s no Omri Katz, or Corey Feldman, or the trio of future stars seen in Explorers, and so the central character is rather tepid. We’re really supposed to think he’s a pyromaniac rebel? To a degree Billy/Alan become director surrogates, although Alan picks up on the then current inquest into the unknown more than comics and old movies; a sign below his computer monitor instructs “QUESTION REALITY”, and he is “more of an X-Files kind of guy”. Dante had a lot of fun putting Billy Peltzer through the mill, but the same kind of treatment of Alan isn’t so amusing (he gets shot in the leg by the Commando Elite); it works with the older Billy, who should be able to take care of himself.
There are a several Gremlins references in the picture, both overt and subtle. From the password (“Gizmo”) to a Gremlin skull, to (particularly) the elaborate means of inflicting devastation on the Commando Elite. One even ends up in the waste disposal, just like in Gremlins. “Dibs on the chainsaw” references both the Tobe Hooper film and the climax of Gremlins which references the Tobe Hooper film. Alan instructs Archer “If I find a virus in there, you’re headed for the microwave”, another means of Gremlin destruction. Dante takes particular relish in ultra-violence inflicted through comedic language and means (“You’ve got a lot of guts. Let’s see what they look like”) and the Commando Elite’s MacGyver-esque lash-up weapons include a vehicle with a cheese grater attachment and a nail gun (“One phat ride!”)
Gwendy Doll: Let’s do something fun.
This unruly behaviour reaches it’s mischievous peak with the Frankenstein frenzy of misapplied body parts that are the Gwendy dolls. Dante takes as much pleasure in uglifying the Barbie-beautifuls of little girls as he did torturing poor Gizmo in Gremlins. The Gwendys, voiced by then brooding Goth go-to girl Christina Ricci and fledgling Buffy Sarah Michelle Gellar, have a host of collectively memorable lines. These riff on airhead bimbo beauty stereotypes with an added dash of sadism (“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful”; “We’ll all get facials”; “Did I over pluck my eyebrows?”; “All my make-up is cruelty free”).
Added to this, the reflex treatment of human owners – which visually recalls Gulliver in Lilliput – has a payback quality we don’t get to see with other depictions of toys; is this what Dante would have done if he had made Toy Story (the reaction of Chip Hazard, when the Fimples’ son Timmy – Jacob Smith – decides to remove his command, is also priceless)? There’s no maudlin feel good nostalgia here. Given the chance they want to see if Christy’s “head comes off”, and “Now it’s our turn to play with you”. They even have untoward designs on Alan (“What’s your sign big boy?”). The sight of Christy sitting on a lawnmower, ploughing her former beloved toys to shreds, is wickedly funny, a cathartic response to indoctrinated behaviour (and underlined with considerable irony; a Gwendy is dashed to pieces against an anti-war poster).
If Smith is the weak link, Dunst is expectedly natural and enthusiastic. Christy is given some peculiar characteristics (she likes both Led Zeppelin and “those stupid Gwendy dolls” even though she only dates older guys?) but Dunst completely outclasses Smith (there’s only one year there, but there may as well be 10). She’s manages to lift the wishy-washy teen sincerity (that Jerry Goldsmith, at his most treacly, reinforces) into something less burdensome, and gives her all to classic Dante trope of pushing an outwardly reserved person too far (“Run! She’s got a baton!”)
Stuart: We’ve gotta find a way to stop these guys before my wife gets tennis elbow.
Dante tends to give his parental figures odd ticks and quirks; far from being the upstanding figures of rectitude and order children imagine them to be, they’re usually just as much of a mess as their kids. The dual families here are no exception. Ann Magnuson, as Alan’s mum Irene has the juicy Lynn Peltzer role of bringing it to her home intruders. Unleashing her tennis skills in a hilarious fight back (“Hey, nice forehand honey!”) she’s the most capable of combatants when her hearth is threatened (it’s a nice inversion of the mild stay-at-home mom). But she also gets the most amusing over-reaction; suspecting Alan is taking drugs (“Are you on crank? Crystal meth, tar, smack?”) when, of course, it’s the walking-talking soldiers’ fault. Kevin Dunn is less amenable, as he makes the grouchy stressed dad a pain rather than someone whose point we can see (when he hits Larry it’s a disappointingly manly sop to him being a traditional, stand-up dad after all).
The mismatched-neighbours device, which reached its apotheosis in Dante’s best movie The ’Burbs, is exemplified with Christy’s parents. Hartman is gloriously ignorant, causing an enormous nuisance with his empathy-free materialism. He cuts down a tree to make room for his vast satellite dish, and Dante incorporates lines about the health concerns of unchecked technology that get drowned out by our desire for more “stuff”; Stuart accuses him of consigning them all to a “cancer node” to which Phil wheels out a rehearsed “You know, there’s never been any conclusive proof…” (this preceding the once much discussed side effects of mobile phone use).
Meanwhile, wife Marion (Dante regular Wendy Schaal) is addicted to prescription meds and booze, the grown-up version of the little girl lulled into a false sense of her future from playing with Gwendy Dolls. Her prize line comes as the Commando Elite wage psychological warfare by wearing down the enemy with an aural assault. In the form of The Spice Girls’ Wannabe. Rather than reacting in despair she is overjoyed; “Phil! Phil! I love this song!” (Edwin Starr’s War is also used to ironic effect, as the Commando Elite mount their final assault).
As ever, Dante litters his movie with sight gags and movie and pop culture references. The onscreen readouts of the Commando Elite are a particular source of mirth. Sighting a dog for the first time, or “Gorgonite canine foe”, they are uncertain of its allegiances (“IDENTIFY: GORGONITE?”) but clear on its intent (“STATUS: HUNGRY”). Later they successfully quantify the Fimples’ foibles, both Phil’s (“IDENTIFY: MORON”) and Marion’s choice of tipple (“IDENTIFY SUBSTANCE: CITRUS WATER ALCOHOL GIN & TONIC”).
Dante incorporates a series of one-liners about the battery guzzling nature of children’s toys. Gil decides to insert a “Lifetime lithium cell” into the toy range (“That’ll piss off the guys at Eveready”) and riffs on the Energizer tagline (already affectionately spoofed in Hot Shots! Part Deux); “Nick Nitro’s battery has run out, but he keeps going and going and going and going”.
Most extravagant are the movie references. Some of these are on the lazy side, ones we’ve heard or seen many times before; “I love the smell of polyurethane in the morning”, the “It’s alive! It’s alive!” Bride of Frankenstein gag is so overdone there should have been a moratorium a good twenty years before Soldiers came out. One the other hand, “Bring me the head of Nick Nitro” invokes Sam Peckinpah at his most unfettered, while “Hello, Mr Chips” is so silly you nearly miss it.
There are also nods to Piranha, and The Terminator (the soldiers’ exoskeletons bear more than a passing resemblance, pre-plastic overcoat, to the T-600 while Chip’s battle damage covers the same areas of his face as Arnie’s; later, Chip’s final demise evokes the eye-popping finale of Total Recall). The obscure B-movie award goes to the clip from The Trollenberg Terror (“The nightmare terror of the slithering eye that unleashed agonizing horror on a screaming world!” – in the Swiss Alps, no less); Dante isn’t throwing it in carelessly, since the eye of the Terror bears a resemblance to Ocula (a Gorgonite without a Spinal Tap vocal attached).
The relative failure of Small Soldiers undoubtedly did not help Dante to get movies off the ground and into production. As with contemporaries John Carpenter and John Landis, he was becoming increasingly side-lined due to his not-mainstream-enough sensibilities (while a fellow filmmaker who indulged Spielberg’s patronage, Robert Zemeckis, went from success to success). Soldiers may inadvertently have further pigeonholed him; he was back in the world of cute special effects movies with young protagonists, pictures that didn’t seem to connect with the greater movie going public. Dante is a movie buff’s filmmaker through-and-through and possesses a satirical savvy almost entirely absent amid the Hollywood landscape, reasons he has been mostly consigned to the wilderness since the end of the ’80s.
It would be another five years before another Dante film arrived, and that would be one of his unhappiest experiences (nevertheless, as messy as it is there is much to love about Looney Tunes: Back in Action). Perhaps it’s time for the younger generation now working to pay their respects with patronage (although that didn’t quite work for Landis recently). The worst one can say about Small Soldiers is that its director is at his most formulaic; it’s largely what we would expect a Joe Dante movie to look like. It’s enormous fun, witty, and replete with a welter of withering commentary on military and corporate mentalities, but he’s already serviced the basic story, and gone beyond that arena and come out the postmodern other side of it all with Gremlins 2.
Addendum (02/02/23): Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.