Small Soldiers (1998) – Joe Dante (Dir.), Gregory Smith, Kirsten Dunst, Denis Leary, David Cross, Jay Mohr, Phil Hartman (*le sigh*)
I’m not sure if you’re aware, but there was this period of time called the ’90s’. Specifically, the late 90s. It’s a time, after the cocaine riddled nightmare/dreamscape of the 80s and darkest of human days that was the early 90s, from which came all the kids that told the Generation Xers to shut up because, sweet Jesus, we get it already, you grew up in the eighties. Here’s a fucking medal now get back to running our economy into the ground. Well, I grew up in the late nineties and I’m gonna tell you all about it and yes, I want a fucking medal, because I’m one of those assholes, Rugrats or not, who is stuck in this economic quagmire because you cokeheads.
Ah the late 90s. A simpler time. A time with a Federal surplus. A time when children went to school asking teachers what a ‘blowjob’ is and ‘who the fuck would touch Monica Lewinsky with a ten foot pole? Oh right, Bill ‘Corndog, well any kind of dog’ Clinton.’ A time of the great Hollywood Blockbusters such as Independence Day, Stargate, The Rock, Wild, Wild West, The Mask of Zorro, The Matrix, Con Air and…well, the list goes on. And on. And on and on and on. It was a time unfettered with the need to be bashful for our misunderstanding of Middle Eastern people, where villains were flagrantly British, no matter what their country of origin. It was a time of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Hey Arnold, Doug (without those brand-ass-spankingly terrible sleeves) and the rest of Nickelodeon’s good shows were forced on a Bataan Death March to the cemetery of childhoods-past by a fucking talking sponge. Basically, what I’m saying, is that I was a child in the late 90s. And it was amazing. I was also a fucking idiot, as I have previously expressed.
So, when my friends and I decided to surf the Flix of Net for some lighter fare, when we discovered this little gem, this artifact of Joe Dante’s post-Gremlins career, just resting there, waiting to be oggled by our ravenously bored eyes, a cheer echoed through our house. A cheer fueled by the agonizingly annoying nostalgia we so hate from our Generation X companions. A cheer fueled with a need for David Cross to be back in our lives, even if he isn’t covered in blue paint and wearing denim cut-offs. A cheer fueled with the desire to witness the late and divinely great Phil Hartman mildly phoning it in. And so…we watched.
To those of you not in the know, Small Soldiers was Joe Dante’s belated follow-up to the manically brilliant and positively insane Gremlins 2: The New Batch. If you have not seen the entirety of the Gremlins franchise, I demand you flagellate yourself for such insolence and then buy both movies immediately. They are genius. Also…Pat Morita. ‘Nuff said. This movie is about a defense company, run by the beautifully non-acting Denis Leary, purchasing a toy developer and accidentally designing a line of action figures that gain sentience and try murdering each other and any other human that gets in the way. Home run, right? Well it certainly fucking was when I was ten. Now it’s a little, how should I put it lightly? Um…dated? Trite? Paralytically stupid? Please, don’t mistake me, this movie is neither good nor bad. It transcends such meager definitions, floating above us in the heaven of pure batshittery, resting next to works of genius such as From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and anything else made by Stephen Sommers. One cannot denounce this film for its basic laps in human logic (Why are toys dangerous? You can just kick them. Also, how can you turns Barbies into self-aware killing machines using a fucking static ball and a cupcake tray?) you simply must sit back and all its glory to wash over you.
Even with the curses of its bland lead actor (Gregory Smith? Ever heard of him? Unless you have a rather traveled heroin addiction, probably not), its use of a decidedly not-legal Kirsten Dunst and Frank Langella cursing his agent with every line-reading, this movie shines with its supporting cast. If one were to do a cross-section of the late-nineties comedy circuit, Dante basically employed EVERYONE. We have Denis Leary being, well, Denis Leary. He’s a penis and he’s hilarious. Next, David Cross during his fascinating “being in things” period of his career. There’s Cheri Oteri, that terrifying, tiny lady who was in sketches with Will Ferrell back in the day. Kevin Dunn, the man who has apparently made a career of playing incompetent fathers. Voices from Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer (that’s right ALL of Spinal Tap, bitches). And finally, last and least, Jay Mohr that guy from SNL and other things no one gives a shit about and acts as a litmus test for all movie watching. All one must do is ask “Is Jay Mohr in it?” If the answer is ‘yes’, the movie must be from any time between 1995-2000. Dude hasn’t been in shit since. What is a hilarious choice on Dante’s part is that every single executive/official is played by a bumbling stand-up comedian, thereby suggesting that our entire Military Industrial Complex (that’s right, I took notes in history class) is a complete joke. See what I did there? I went to college!
May I take a moment here to remove my hat, hold it over my heart and remember the greatness that was Phil Hartman. He will forever be one of my favorite comedic actors of all time before he was gunned down by his wife in a fit of rage. The man was brilliant. Troy McClure, Lionel Hutz, News Radio, SNL, and all the rest. He will be missed. Let’s take a moment to remember.
That was a good moment. You can’t tell I took one, because I’m writing. But I did. So shut up.
Back on track, this movie’s biggest issue, fourteen years down the line…wait…14 years? It’s been FOURTEEN YEARS? What the fuck am I doing with my life? How…? When…?
Sorry about that. I’ll weep in a corner later. Anyway, it’s biggest issue is that Dante is clearly attempting to make a point of how technology is infiltrating every aspect of our lives. In almost every frame there is a piece of media technology, from TVs, to walkmen, to…wait did I just say ‘Walkmen’? Oh god I remember those. At one point the kid makes reference to ENCARTA 95. Do you know what that is? No, you don’t. It’s wikipedia on a CD. Do you know how useful it is? That’s right, about as useful as a thumb up the ass. Uncomfortable and ending without the desired result. Of course, he makes his point, one that is intelligently prescient and salient, but with the side effect of causing everyone in the room to laugh at how hysterically terrible living in the 90s actually was. Dial-up internet? No text messaging? Cassette tapes? Jay Mohr? The whole prospect of those dark days is enough to give you nightmares. Jay Mohr nightmares (I’m trying to say that he is fucking terrible. Get it? Yes? Good. Moving on.)
It’s a fun piece of nonsensical fluff, wrapped in a surprisingly hilarious score (Spice Girls, anyone? I believe they were all recently bitten by zombies raised from the dead and forced to sing like dancing abominable monkeys at the Olympics). Never once do the toys ever seem like they might do any damage because, honestly, they’re fucking toys. Also, Joe Dante hates the military. That much is clear. But, beyond the flagrant misunderstanding of the capabilities of hardware vs. software (artificial intelligence is software, David Cross, not hardware,you bald-headed sexually inanimate boob. I still love you, though) it’s a little too silly to take seriously. While it attempts to satirize and attack America’s obsession with the intersection of violence and entertainment, it succumbs to its own demons, reducing the affair to a game of ‘Hold the Fort’. Even the tritely named Gorgonites have to let go of their pacifistic ideals to kick some ass.
Perhaps the best dig in the entire film at this prevailing violence-fixation epidemic is a one-off line from Mr. “Angels Sing When I Think of You” Hartman. While watching his massively high-def television, he declares “I think World War II is my favorite war.” Think about that for a second. If we take Sherman’s quote, “War is Hell” for granted…how in God’s name can we have a ‘favorite’ war? It’s such a side-line joke and yet it encapsulates Dante’s Thesis (the less exciting sequel to Inferno though the Thesis Defense was as horrifying as the lowest ring of hell, trust me) far more wittily and succinctly than a bunch of facially deformed super-toys blurting tired puns and building Might Morphin’ Shitter Ranger Mobiles to kill pacifists.
That is the power of Hartman. Long live the Hartman.