Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Small Soldiers (1998)

Towards the end of Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers, a band of pacifist toys make the crucial decision to put away long-held ideals and spring into action. The Gorgonites were designed to be kind, peaceful and educational to kids, but now the evil Commando Elite toys are taking over the neighborhood, and the life of Alan Abernathy, the kid who has been sheltering the Gorgonites all along, is being threatened.

Archer, emissary of the Gorgonites, steps forth. He cannot abide the cruelty of the Commando Elite any longer. He attempts to rally his comrades. “Gorgonites,” he commands, “we must help Alan.”

The Gorgonites are appalled by this idea. One by one, they make one desperate protest after another:

“But if we fight, we will lose!”

“Last time we fought, I woke up with AMFM!”

“I tell ya: War is nuts! And I know what I’m talking about!”

“We shouldn’t fight! We should hide!”

Archer listens to all of these protests. No doubt he understands their concern—for, being a Gorgonite, he knows what it means to run away from violence, to survive at all costs. But now the Gorgonites’ nonviolence may very well cost the life of the kid who trusted them and provided them safety. If they don’t act, Alan will die. Archer doesn’t particularly want to fight, but he has to. Hiding will no longer do them any good.

 “If we hide,” Archer concludes, “…we will still lose. No more hiding.”

At age 7, when I saw Small Soldiers during initial release in the summer of 1998, it was these words spoken by Archer that led me to realize what a great movie this was. Up until then, I was enjoying Small Soldiers merely as gleeful, escapist entertainment, pumped full of big action, bad toys, dopey parents, a hot teenage Kirsten Dunst and an insecure teenage hero I immediately identified with in young Gregory Smith. But by the time Archer gave his speech, rallying the Gorgonites to fight, something about Small Soldiers appealed to the grade-school warrior in me, and I realized that this was a very intelligent film, treating me like an adult with its focus not just on the issues of growing pains, but the issues of warfare.

Watching it today, I still stand by what I felt at age 7: Small Soldiers is a great movie, perhaps even Joe Dante’s best movie, and this is the director who has also given us Gremlins, The HowlingInnerspaceThe ‘Burbs and Matinee. That being said, I don’t always agree with interpretations posed by the film’s various fans. I sometimes hear the film described as “antiwar”, for example; I couldn’t disagree more with that assessment. One of the film's fans whom I disagree with is Jonathan Rosenbaum, who reviewed the film around the same time when Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was in theaters. In his review, Rosenbaum dismissed Saving Private Ryan as jingoistic propaganda, then added, "One of the finer virtues of Small Soldiers is that it cuts through this kind of crap and makes the very idea of a war film look ridiculous."

I disagree enormously with Rosenbaum's dismissal of Saving Private Ryan, and even with some of his theories about Small Soldiers, although I do agree with him that Small Soldiers is partially constructed as a satire of war movies. Certainly, Small Soldiers does take a bit of pleasure in lampooning war movies in general. The members of the jingoistic Commando Elite, for example, are all voiced by cast members from Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, a hardcore war/action flick so celebrated for its jingoism that, even before Dante, Nora Ephron was already making fun of it in Sleepless in Seattle. The war-movie satiric agenda of Small Soldiers is also announced when the Commando Elite first come to life in the film: Major Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) rips his way out of a plastic box and gives a warmongering speech in front of a giant American flag, Patton-style. On the film’s soundtrack, we hear Edwin Starr's aggressively-pacifist “War! What Is It Good For?” And in a later scene, a drunken Phil Hartman (in his last film role) is heard to mutter the infamous line, “I think World War II was my favorite war” (Rosenbaum, in his review, wittily muses: “It seems like a line Steven Spielberg might utter”).

All of this is considerable, and yet I’ve always believed that the screenplay for Small Soldiers (written by Adam Rifkin, Gavin Scott, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) has a lot more on its mind that just satirizing war and war movies. For example: In an early scene, when young Alan (Gregory Smith) has come into possession of Archer (voiced by Frank Langella), he wonders why all the other Gorgonites have fled into hiding. “Monsters shouldn’t be hiding,” complains Alan. “They should be out fighting Commandos.”

“We would lose,” Archer mutters. “It is what we were programmed to do.”

Alan is flabbergasted. “Hide and lose? Those are some great options!”

In scenes like this, I’ve always felt that as much as Small Soldiers lampoons the mindlessness of violence, it also recognizes the consequences of simply ignoring violence. What good can “hiding and losing” do anyone, the films asks, after violence has already landed in your own neighborhood, on your front doorstep? When next-door neighbor, Kristy (Kirsten Dunst), is captured and tortured by the Commando Elite, the film’s attitude towards violence drastically changes with a key line of dialogue spoken by the film’s hero, Alan: “Major Hazard wants a war. We’ll give him a war.”

The character of Kristy is, like the Gorgonites, initially a pacifist herself. Her bedroom wall is plastered with a poster which reads, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” We have no reason to disagree, at first. But when the Commando Elite transform Kristy’s “Gwendy dolls” (voiced by Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar) into devilish little Bride-of-Frankenstein freaks, they rebel against Kristy and even attempt to decapitate her; Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” plays on the soundtrack, as a way of signifying that Kristy’s peaceful ideals have no way of reaching her at this point—let alone saving her. It’s no wonder that when Alan comes to the rescue, not only does he wipe out some Gwendy dolls in the process, but even Kristy herself gets a taste for blood and finds herself actually taking pleasure in killing. “This is fun!” she squeals, chopping up her once-precious dolls with a club.

At age 7, I have to admit that I found all of this very exciting. That doesn’t mean that I think Small Soldiers works simply because of the visceral kick I got out of watching toys get clobbered. I just mean to say that for all of the film’s points about the ridiculousness of warfare, nevertheless, the cathartic thrill experienced from such an incredible variation on warfare as toys destroying each other was never lost on me, even at such a young age.

Rosenbaum himself confessed in his review that the Gorgonites yielded an “emotional response” from him, and he added, “The fact that they’re programmed to hide as well as lose is poetically apt given the way such icons are routinely swept to the margins of a pop media culture that places a higher premium on the ‘action’ of explosive killing machines.” It’s this aspect of the film that first appealed to me, as a young kid often bullied in grade school; no doubt Small Soldiers, if not outright antiwar, is at least making heroes out of the side that generally loses in war, while rejecting the history of war as told by the side that usually wins. In the film, this manifests not only as Denis Leary’s hawkish CEO but also as Kristy’s macho biker boyfriend, who jeers at Alan for being a high school dropout but later chickens out when faced with the Commando Elite threat, his pants literally catching on fire as he screams hysterically out into the night (leaving the presumably-wimpy Alan to finish off where he started).

Joe Dante's work has been celebrated by Steven Spielberg ever since Spielberg stood up for his film Piranha (1978), preventing Universal from having the film removed from theaters when it was initially perceived as just another Jaws ripoff. He offered Gremlins to Dante after being further impressed with his work on The Howling (1981). One pleasure of Dante's work is that it is full of sly parodies of Spielberg; when Joseph McBride once asked him if Gremlins was meant to be “E.T. With Teeth,” Dante replied, “Yes, and Steven cooperated entirely with it. He got the joke right away." Dante's films Innerspace and Gremlins 2: The New Batch were Amblin productions as well, and after Small Soldiers lingered in development hell for 10 years, Spielberg was the one who finally selected Dante to direct, making it one of the first films made for DreamWorks. 

The film did not do very well at the box office. Perhaps that was because most parents that summer were too concerned with Clinton’s impeachment to take their kids to see it. Or maybe because Roger Ebert, in his 2 ½-star review, scared parents away with his dubious opinion that it was too scary for kids. I actually think Rosenbaum was more accurate on audience responses to the film when he observed, “I can’t think of a Hollywood entertainment I’ve enjoyed as much all year, and both audiences I saw the movie with seemed delighted as well.”

Rosenbaum further argues, “Spielberg’s encouragement of Dante’s anti-Spielbergian projects goes beyond tolerance.” But I would argue that Spielberg did, indeed, recognize the subversive elements of Small Soldiers, and didn’t greenlight it for Dante merely under the assumption that it would be another big hit like Gremlins. Spielberg himself is hardly an alien to films satirizing the ridiculousness of warfare; when 1941 (1979) was released, it inspired a Heavy Metal/Arrow spin-off comic book that opened with an introduction by Spielberg in which he stated, “I felt that after the war in Vietnam and the disillusionment the nation experienced, it was important to remind people that war doesn’t have to be a trip up the river to hell; it could also be a lot of laughs.” A film like Small Soldiers appeals to a similar philosophy, and it is difficult to believe it could have been lost on Spielberg, even during his more serious attitude towards war films by the late 90’s.

But the argument in Rosenbaum’s review that I disagree the most with is his assertion “that Small Soldiers ridicules the agenda of films like Saving Private Ryan.” In my opinion, the philosophy of the two films is actually quite similar. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg reaches the conclusion that war is hell, but that it can also inspire decency and heroism. In Small Soldiers, Dante reaches the conclusion that war is hell, but that it can also be fun—not just in Kristy’s exclamation of, “This is fun!” while chopping up her dolls, but also when Chip Hazard wryly asks, “Ain’t war hell?” while shooting at Alan in the climax, provoking Alan to roar, “Have I got a shock for you—you STUPID TOY!” before electrocuting Hazard to death. And by the time Kristy finishes off the rest of the lot by running them over with a lawn mower, she excitedly asks Alan, “Is this going to be a pattern for our relationship!??” which seems like nothing if not an indication of the sexual high she gets out of killing (no wonder Pat Benetar’s “Love Is A Battlefield” occupies its own special place on the soundtrack).

Small Soldiers leaves us with the realization that war is a lot of things. Yes, it’s “hell”, and yes, it’s “nuts”—but it can also be “fun”, and it can make heroes out of wimpy kids and societal misfits, and sometimes it can be liberating as well. “Gorgonites, we’re free!” declares Archer, after his comrades have emerged from the carnage unscathed. I never do fail, either, to get a little teary-eyed during the film’s touching final sequence, scored beautifully by Jerry Goldsmith, when the Gorgonites decide it’s time to go carve out a land of their own in the world (Dante seems to be alluding to the ending of Schindler’s List), while Archer leaves Alan with parting words of wisdom: “Even if you can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” For Alan, it means finding the strength within himself to fight for the things he loves, and by the time the movie is over, we are convinced he’s achieved just that. His own days of “hiding and losing” are over.