Metal Gear Solid director Hideo Kojima is often praised for the gravitas imbued in the series’ thematic motifs. Critiquing the military industrial complex, discussing the difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction in a world saturated with information, even borrowing heavily from Nietzschean philosophy, the Metal Gear series is beloved for these distinctly Kojima touches.
However, what most don’t realize is that there is another man alive today who grappled with these themes in the realm of pop culture, another man who stands as a champion of the people in a world that is perpetually oppressed by the constant onslaught of war. That man’s name is Joe Dante, and his protest exists in the form of a film known as Small Soldiers.
For those unacquainted, Small Soldiers pits two factions against each other in the most brutal war the world has ever known. This war began when Denis Leary, a.k.a. Gwen Stacy’s dad in the worst Spider-Man films ever, started to pump money into the development of sentient toys: the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites.
These toys play into the very real horror trope known as “killer toy,” which Wikipedia defines as “fictional characters based on toys, dolls or puppets that commit violent acts [as a result of] possession by demons, devils, monsters, ghosts, supernatural creatures, dark magic, and malevolent or malfunctioning technology.” In the case of Small Soldiers, there are no demons present; only an X1000 microprocessor designed as part of experimental engineering in smart munitions that somehow became installed in a group of Commando Elite action figures. This film literally revolves around the fact that a defense contractor with too much money funded the creation of military AI disguised as children’s toys.
What happens next is pretty much what you’d expect. Children’s toys designed to be weapons of mass destruction are obviously purchased for children, which means that it’s Small Soldier’s protagonistic teen duo Alan and Christy that are forced to fight this war for humanity. Archer, leader of the Gorgonites—the good guys, despite their monstrous appearance—hides in Alan’s backpack, later revealing himself and explaining the threat posed by his mortal enemy, Tommy Lee Jones, a.k.a. Chip “Chad” Hazard. Believing the Gorgonites’ cause to be a noble one, Alan enlists with Archer and plummets into a war waging between two sets of the absolute ugliest action figures ever conceived.
Dante himself (Joe, not Alighieri) commented on this in an interview with the Chicago Reader. “We were planning to use a lot of Stan Winston’s puppets—he had made some very elaborate puppets that could do a lot of things,” he said. “But in practice, we found it was much simpler and cheaper to let the CGI people do the work after we’d shot the scenes. So, I would say, it’s one-third puppetry and the rest CGI in Small Soldiers, even though the original idea was to do mostly puppetry.”
Perhaps the indulgence in puppetry is ultimately what helped to hammer the film’s points about the military industrial complex home, as killer toy Chip Hazard is legitimately horrifying in a way that only puppets can be.
After throwing the goody-two-shoes Gorgonites in the loser dumpster where they belong, a roided-up Chip Hazard roams the streets with his posse of toy super soldiers. Shortly afterwards, the Commando Elite attempt to straight up murder Alan for sympathizing with Archer. Despite his evident trauma, Alan is not supported by his parents, who for some reason believe the idea of a toy army to be ludicrous. The enemy has a whole heap of nukes? Ludicrous. The enemy is a squad of animated toy soldiers? No way.
As the Chad-led Commando Elite grow in power and resolve, it appears that the world may soon see its reckoning. Chip Hazard even kidnaps Alan’s love interest, Christy, who is not a toy but an actual human being that has been overpowered by Special Forces toys. This unit is hellbent on the absolute eradication of the Gorgonites, no matter the cost in human life.
The Commando Elite’s toxic influence eventually extends outside of itself, as the unit’s superior military intelligence allows it to render inanimate toys sentient—creating an entire army of Gwendy dolls to give their lives for the cause. Again, the Gorgonites must be stopped in their peacefully-trodden tracks, no matter the cost. This is war; there are no exceptions.
Somehow, Alan and Archer manage to overpower the Gwendy dolls and save Christy. However, their luck quickly runs out. As they attempt to escape, Chip’s recherché commandos tail them in hot pursuit. Luckily, due to some deus ex mechanized turn of events, the Commando Elite’s upper echelon perishes in a devastating car crash. Not Chip “Chad” Hazard, though, who decides to go one step further and launch an all-out attack on Alan’s house, parents and all. As Wilfred Owen once wrote—albeit satirically—”Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” or, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Chip is willing to risk it all to ensure that his lust for destruction is sated.
In order to stop the leader of the Commando Elite once and for all, young teen Alan uses his extensive knowledge of EMPs and climbs to the top of an electricity pole, where he briefly battles Chip in hand-to-hand combat. Alan punches the action-figure-sized action figure, launching him further than a Jigglypuff at 300% damage. Chip’s body triggers the EMP, and the Commando Elite are dishonorably discharged from life. The battle has been won, but the war has just begun.
Non-toy military man Gil Mars shows up soon afterwards in a completely unnecessary helicopter and compensates the Abernathy family in exchange for their silence. He then arranges for the Commando Elite to be sold to rebel forces in South America at an obscenely high price as a force of miniature super soldiers. They may not be able to protect America, but they can still be sold to the highest bidder to wreak havoc somewhere else. Alan and Christy become boyfriend and girlfriend after the events of this highly romantic film, and the Gorgonites set sail in Yosemite National Park’s lake in search of their homeland, Gorgon, which they’ll never find because a) it doesn’t exist; and b) it’s a lake.
In an interview with Den of Geek, Dante had the following to say: “Originally I was told to make an edgy picture for teenagers, but 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.”
Who knows what Small Soldiers could have been had it included the extra explosions? However, even sans-explosions, it’s undeniable that Small Soldiers is a product of artistic genius. Joe Dante, misunderstood visionary, is an auteur that we’d do well to learn from from here on out. Small Soldiers may have a rating of 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s likely that’s just another government conspiracy designed to hide the truth. When an army of toy soldiers eventually attempts to take over the world, it will be the Small Soldiers school that we turn to for a last-ditch effort at saving the human race from extinction.