Nostalgia has been revealed as one of the most powerful weapons of cinema. We’ve seen it impact those that loved the 80s (and those of us that love the aesthetic), bits of the 70s and 90s have popped up recently, and we all flock out for merch or snuggle up in front of our televisions to enjoy something that feels like a throwback. Nostalgia also fuels our desire to not only witness new ideas based in a classic ambiance, but also to reach back and find the actual artifacts we loved.
Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (1998) is one of those films I love dearly. Sure, this isn’t exactly overlooked or something we play down, but I feel like we collectively forgot about it. I’ve been talking a lot about films from the 90s, but this one feels so very much like it encapsulates what they meant to a generation of kids like me that grew up in that era. From the cast to the imagery to the way the toys looked, the puzzle pieces came together to form something that can really give you an understanding of the lense we viewed the world through.
Small Soldiers is a story of two sets of toys – the Gorgonites and the Commando Elite. The two factions happen to have highly advanced AI chips in their plastic heads that make them completely self-aware, locked in a war designed by a toy company to sell things while still functioning as intelligent individuals. A young boy, Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) finds the Gorgonites and befriends them. He’s got a wild crush on Christy (Kirsten Dunst), and the Commando Elite decides to use that against him while trying to destroy his new friends. A mixture of violence and hilarity ensues, no small amount of it revolving around Christy’s father, Phil Fimple (Phil Hartman). In a post-Jurassic Park world, acting against things that aren’t really there (or are only partially there) isn’t a new thing, but it’s always nice to see it done well. The kids take to it naturally, particularly Dunst, and they serve as wonderful leads in a film that might otherwise be a mess.
The two opposing leaders, Chip Hazard and Archer, voiced by Tommy Lee Jones and Frank Langella respectively, are an absolute blast. Langella is doing a voice and not using his own, but Jones is leaning all-in on his own sound and playing it like a violin prodigy. The voice cast does an overall wonderful job, utilizing the additional talents of Ernest Borgnine, Bruce Dern, Harry Shearer, and Jim Cummings (I told you this movie was ridiculously emblematic of the 90s) to round out the two factions. It’s a fun group that are completely able to let you sit back and forget what you’re watching. Well…outside of Tommy Lee Jones, but why would you want to cover up that luscious voice box?
There’s a solemn tone to part of this, and it’s completely by accident. This is the final onscreen role of Phil Hartman, his others relegated to voice roles. It hit theatres after his death in 1998 and served as his swan song. Not his best role (that would be either Troy McClure from The Simpsons or Ted Maltin from Jingle All the Way), but a fun one that lets him do what he does best: entertain, allow us to laugh, and be a complete goofus.
The whole thing is some of the most fun one could have with this kind of family film. It’s fun, but not friendly, vicious and yet lighthearted. Some of us grew up on things of this ilk, on Gremlins and Innerspace and Small Soldiers (all Joe Dante films, just FYI), and he knew how to appeal to the whole family. There’s enough subtle adult humor for the parents and enough childish gags for the kids, all wrapped in a bright and grim package that maintains entertainment the whole time. Joe Dante was never about genius, he was about having fun and pulling no punches about how we had it. Toys die, kids are wounded, and artificial lives are threatened right alongside real ones and he made you care. That’s the beauty of Small Soldiers, and it’s worth revisiting while you’re stuck.
Small Soldiers is currently streaming on Netflix.