The 90s on Netflix: Small Soldiers (1998)
Mark Harrison | On 18, Mar 2023
Director: Joe Dante
Cast: Gregory Smith, Kirsten Dunst, Tommy Lee Jones, Frank Langella, Jay Mohr, David Cross
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. In this column, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
“Everything else is just a toy.” 2023 has seen the birth of a new horror movie icon with M3GAN, Gerard Johnstone’s raucous sci-fi horror flick about an artificially intelligent doll. Us 90s kids remember a time before TikTok and Blumhouse, when the world was Toys R Us as far as the eye can see, and somewhere out of that “toyetic” spell of blockbuster cinema comes 1998’s Small Soldiers.
Perhaps the most 1990s thing about this is the opening: a news item about US defence contractors GloboTech Industries using its state-of-the-art technology to make consumer products, like toys, for one. It’s as wry as a sketch from HBO’s Mr Show, complete with David Cross as one of the toy designers who’s press-ganged into creating “toys that play back”.
Unfortunately, his colleague (Jay Mohr) has the bright idea of putting munitions chips in the new “smart” toy line. So, when tearaway teen and toy-shop temp Alan (Gregory Smith) gets an advance order of the Commando Elite action figures (led by a Tommy Lee Jones-esque Chip Hazard) and the Gorgonite educational toys (fronted by a Frank Langella-voiced Archer), their backstory battle spills over into full-scale war. Or quarter-scale war, anyway.
We’re just kidding about M3GAN being another Small Soldiers, not least because Small Soldiers is really Joe Dante redoing Gremlins. Among the first raft of films launched by the fledgling DreamWorks Pictures, the film was conceived as an edgier action comedy aimed at teenagers but wound up skewing younger after the studio was done with it.
Some 14 years prior, Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom had prompted the creation of the American PG-13 rating, giving some commercial leeway to films that were stronger than PG but softer than R. By 1998, big, expensive movies were being pitched below PG-13 to maintain family appeal.
10 years on, Dante recalled in an interview with Den of Geek: “When the sponsor tie-ins came in the new mandate was to soften it up as a kiddie movie. Too late, as it turned out, and there are elements of both approaches in there. Just before release it was purged of a lot of action and explosions.”
You can definitely see that in the film, as Small Soldiers duly received a PG-13 rating in 1998, but the carnage is somewhat compromised – you can see where the Gremlins-style anarchy was reined in. Either way, corporate sponsors Burger King still didn’t get the PG-rated film they’d have preferred, prompting the company to include disclaimers in their kids’ meal tie-in promotion.
In the film itself, the corporate-mandated mismatch goes down better. Toy Story is another clear influence, but the film uses a mix of stop-motion animation and Stan Winston puppets to bolster its computer-generated characters. In the recording booth, Jones retains his Batman Forever pomp, barking out puns for all they’re worth, and the Commando Elites are rounded out by fellow screen veterans such as Ernest Borgnine, Bruce Dern and George Kennedy.
Noted for their best talent being hiding, the goofy Gorgonites are a more deliberately lopsided lot, with Langella backed up by voice acting legend Jim Cummings and the core cast of This Is Spinal Tap (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) giving wackier performances. And so, the film is more than covered on that toyetic front.
As for the human cast, Kirsten Dunst makes a winning stop as a girl-next-door on her way to Spider-Man’s Mary Jane, while Gregory Smith acquits himself well enough to fill Zack Galligan’s modest sneakers. Other standouts in the stacked ensemble include Cross and Mohr’s squabbling toy designers, the late great Phil Hartman as neighbour-from-hell Fimple, and Dante regular Dick Miller as grumpy delivery man Joe.
While it’s ultimately less than the sum of its parts, Small Soldiers isn’t so much a defanged Gremlins as a gateway to it. As a blatant remix of the berserk Christmas classic, it’s not as funny as the preceding film but it’s not as scary either. Despite being aimed at a younger audience, this game of soldiers says “sod that” to expectations and plays rough with its cartoonish carnage all the same.
Next Time on The 90s On Netflix…
“Our whole lives are on the computer, and they knew, they knew that I could be vanished. They knew that nobody would care, that nobody would understand, and that you would, that it wouldn’t matter anymore.”