By Nathan Smith
A continuing series in which Nathan revisits objects of nostalgia- both from his own childhood and those of his peers.
There are some movies which I remember the marketing campaign for better than the actual movie. Wild Wild West. Men in Black II. The Matrix sequels. But perhaps no better example exists than DreamWorks’ 1998 film Small Soldiers. Despite the success its toys and various products seemed to have among my pre-school peers, there was absolutely no way that I would have seen a PG-13 movie at age 4, even if that movie clearly seems targeted to kids. Nevertheless, I was a boy and wanted to see the movie.
But like almost everything else in this series, I never saw the movie and had totally forgotten about it until a few years ago. That’s when I read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s excellent essay collection, Movie Wars. In the book there’s an article, originally published in a 1998 issue of The Chicago Reader, which compares two DreamWorks films in theaters at the same time: Small Soldiers and Saving Private Ryan. Early in the piece, Rosenbaum quotes Steven Spielberg, who reportedly once said that every war movie ends up an anti-war movie. In typical fashion, Rosenbaum takes Spielberg to task and deftly proves how Small Soldiers is not just the better anti-war film, but the better film overall. I feel like the duo of Amistad and Saving Private Ryan are where Spielberg fell off, the point at which he became more interested in moral lessons than actual movies, but the snob in me refused to think that something as obviously low-brow as Small Soldiers could ever be an effective piece of film-making. I’d caught a few minutes of it on TBS one morning a few years before that and those quick moments didn’t serve to counter my thinking at that time. Still though, it’s a movie I wanted to see as a kid but never did, so I added it to my list.
One of my initial realizations about Small Soldiers is that for a movie with advertising clearly designed to sell toys, it’s surprisingly against the idea of “war toys.” The Commando Elite, the focus of the movie’s marketing campaign, aren’t even the actual heroes; they’re the villains, and rather sadistic ones at that. There’s no doubt in my mind that Small Soldiers deserved a PG-13 rating, even if it seems made for kids. Many critics and audience members at the time complained that the movie stunk of a Toy Story rip-off, a valid claim since DreamWorks Animations released Antz, a darker version of A Bug’s Life, a few years earlier. But the only real similarity the two movies bear, other than featuring toys that come to life, is that Small Soldiers takes the most horrific scenes in Toy Story and stretches them out over a 100-minute running time. It’s a feature-length version of the scenes where we meet the toys under Sid’s bed. In some respects, Small Soldiers is plasticine torture porn.
The film’s anti-war toy message becomes apparent early on, while toy soldiers and action figures remain heroes in the Toy Story movies. The “small soldiers” in question, created by a massive corporation which claims to “beat swords into plowshares for your family,” utilize military-grade microprocessors, turning the toys into actual killing machines. A connection clearly exists between toy companies and the military-industrial complex.
“Don’t call it violence,” says the sleazeball corporate executive played by Dennis Leary, “Call it action. Kids love action.” But Small Soldiers isn’t an “action” movie and doesn’t pretend to be. The movie specializes in cruel and brutal violence, violence which seems all the more sickening when dealt out by toy soldiers. They fashion torture machines out of bits of wire, carpentry tools, nail guns- whatever household objects they can imbue with a sense of sadism. The idea of toys “rising up” a la The Terminator seems ridiculous, but on-screen, it’s terrifying.
The movie’s sense of horror also gives it added satire. Because toys, not humans, give out the violence, we must separate ourselves as people from the conflict and reflect on what these objects actually mean. Their nature as toys also allows for them to seem like more convincing caricatures, an essential element of satire. When Avatar attempts to promote an anti-war and anti-business message by self-seriously caricaturing soldiers and military contractors, it seems tired and offensive; these are real people after all. But toys are always over-the-top, so it isn’t unrealistic to see a brutish, rude, and cruel commando with a razor-sharp jawline- just so long as he’s plastic.
Other than toys, the movie’s satire is farily low-key. It mostly exists in off-hand comments by characters who complain about the rise of corporations or declare that “World War II was their favorite war.” But these lines of dialogue, as unimportant as they might seem, help establish how commonplace violence and war are in our culture. Every boy wants to make his action figures fight and every man of a certain age develops an inexplicable interest in World War II. We accept it. But Small Soldiers doesn’t want to. It pushes that complacent attitude toward violence to its most ridiculous extreme. Director Joe Dante (Gremlins, The ‘Burbs, The Howling, Piranha) has built a career out of using genre films as a platform for social commentary, but none of his films seem so fully developed in their satire as Small Soldiers. The movie’s marketing, which clearly mishandled the subject matter, unintentionally reinforces the existence of these attitudes in American society. Little kids will go see a movie if they think it’s about action figures. As a kid, I loved toy soldiers, so I wanted to see Small Soldiers. But like the previous installments, I’m glad I didn’t see this as a kid. I would have written it off as just a war movie. In some ways, I don’t even think that Small Soldiers work as a movie for kids, unless the intention is to scare those kids away from violence, which the movie does. But I’d hate to have left the film as a child thinking that the commandos were “cool.”
Satire aside, Small Soldiers is a fun movie. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about its craft other than the special effects, which hold up today. Even though it’s fun (and pretty freaky), the message truly makes the movie. We go in expecting one thing and leave with something completely different. Every so often, audiences need a studio movie like that. Whether intentional or not, Small Soldiers is subversion at its finest. Everything else is just a toy.
Next Week: The Mighty Ducks