The Spool / Anniversaries
Small Soldiers at 25: Design for Living
Joe Dante's 1998 teens n' toy creatures v killer toy commandos flick boasts marvelous character and design work for its titular playthings, which in turn lead to thoughtful observations on toymaking.

Joe Dante’s 1998 teens n’ toy creatures v killer toy commandos flick boasts marvelous character and design work for its titular playthings, which in turn lead to thoughtful observations on toymaking.

What draws kids to toys? Cunning advertising? Colorful packaging? Creative capture of the zeitgeist? All of those play a role, certainly. But drawing a kid to a toy isn’t the same thing as keeping their attention. No, for a toy to take hold, to become something that kids love, something that’s real, what’s needed is care. There’s no one way for care to manifest—it can be everything from a long-running story whose telling breathes character into a broadly sketched world to a guiding design philosophy dedicated to helping kids grow. Amidst clever chaos, cutting satire, and creative effects work, Joe Dante‘s Small Soldiers—released in the US 25 years ago this week—proves a fun meditation on the necessity of care in crafting.

Dante and the Stan Winston Studio team build Small Soldiers‘ action on scale and the transmutation of the everyday into the ridiculous but dangerous. As vicious as Major Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones) and his Commando Elite are, Dante and company never lose sight of the fact that physically, they’re toys. Plastic, metal, wires, and maybe 12 inches high at most. It’s one thing for them to menace the gentle Archer (Frank Langella) and his fellow Gorgonites. It’s another entirely for them to take on a human. For all of their hyper-macho certainty, simple pouncing does not get them very far. Thus, creativity is required.

Dante carries the gleefully anarchic spirit of his Gremlins into Small Soldiers via the Commandos’ efforts to counter the size factor, whether through upping their numbers via the Frankensteinian creation of silicon life or deploying an arsenal of remarkably brutal weaponry built from everyday household items. The Commando Elite are ridiculous, a down-to-the-casting-Dirty-Half-Dozen so overloaded with testosterone that even Marion Cobretti might find it a bit much. Their absurdity enhances the danger they pose to the Gorgonites and their human allies—if you can build one makeshift flamethrower, why not build multiple makeshift flamethrowers? After all, all Gorgonite scum (humans included) must die.

While the action is where Dante and company have the most fun with Small Soldiers, the friendship that develops between Archer and troubled teen Alan (Gregory Smith) is the most nteresting work in the film. It’s also home to the subtler side of Small Soldiers‘ argument for the necessity of care—in toymaking and in general.

Alan’s generally a sweet kid, but he’s lonely and chafes against his father (Kevin Dunn, Catch the Fair One)’s heavy-handed, untrusting parenting (though, in one of the script’s weaker [and decidedly pre-Columbine] moments, Alan’s past Rebellious Teen Antics leap from tagging and flooding toilets to a bomb threat. Even setting aside the ongoing gun violence epidemic, that’s both a massive jump in the scale of his actions and does not track with how Alan’s played by Smith and otherwise written—a strange, discordant note in the picture). Archer, despite being marketed as a cowardly nemesis to the Commandos, is similarly good-hearted, a searcher doing his best to look out for his fellows and find a way home.

Small Soldiers
Alan (Gregory Smith) is pulled out of his guarded shell by Archer (Frank Langella) and his fellow Gorgonites (Christopher Guest and Jim Cummings). Small Soldiers, Universal.

By befriending Alan, Archer is able to follow his original programming—prior to being repurposed as the Commandos’ hated enemies, the Gorgonites were meant as “learning through play” toys—to learn about the world, both literally (in his going on an Encarta binge) and figuratively (learning to understand that the world exists beyond himself). This in turn enables him and his fellow Gorgonites to grow beyond their “cowardly foe” programming. By befriending Archer, Alan is able to mature and break out of the rut he opens Small Soldiers stuck in. He actively works to befriend and ask out his crush Christy (the great Kirsten Dunst, reliably good despite frustrating writing for her more-than-meets-the-eye teen girl). He proves his trustworthiness to his Dad. He connects and engages with the world beyond himself.

By contrast, for all their posturing (and an aggressive marketing campaign from their manufacturer) the Commando Elite are written as fatally flawed on a conceptual level. Beyond their cousin-to-Starship-Troopers military aesthetic, all they are is the Gorgonites’ enemy—and even that’s the result of a corporate-mandted combination of two toylines that were not meant to be connected. Where the Gorgonites can both literally learn and grow and—as evidenced by Alan—help others to do so, the Commandos can only regurgitate. While their homemade death machines are creative, they all boil down to “weapon.” While their battle strategies are cunning and dangerous, in practice they boil down to “throw more at the enemy.” Their one moment of sentiment—mourning a colleague fatally mauled by a garbage disposal—is undercut by Chip Hazard’s elegy degenerating into a pre-existing commercial catchphrase (Small Soldiers‘ voice work is strong throughout, but Jones is a particular hoot as the increasingly deranged Major) and their lack of individuality.

Small Soldiers
The Commando Elite (Tommy Lee Jones, George Kennedy, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, Clint Walker, and Bruce Dern) prove themselves an impeccably designed example of bad toy design. Small Soldiers, Universal.

Where the Gorgonites are distinct and lovable (minus some grating jokes about contemporary pop culture, but that’s a matter of personal taste), the Commando Elite are a murderous blob—developments that tie directly back to the care and lack thereof with which they were crafted, amplified by Small Soldiers‘ fantastic learning-capable AI computer chips. As Robert Picardo puts it: “They can learn within the boundaries of their primary programming. Whatever the core programming, the X 1000 enhances it from within. So if you’ve got a problem, it’s in your software.”

Most failed toys don’t turn literally murderous and lead armies to massacre their enemies, but many do share the Commandos sloppy, careless design—whether actively dangerous or just pain boring. Conversely, many toys that have caught on and endured are made with care that’s cousin to the Gorgonites’ crafting. Care matters in toymaking. Small Soldiers, all together a solidly good—if uneven—picture, shines in making that argument. Langella and Jones’ excellent voice work, the Stan Winston Studio team’s gorgeous effects, and Dante’s gleefully chaotic action aequences come together to build the case. For my money, they succeed, and admirably.