North American theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Joe Dante|
|Music by||Jerry Goldsmith|
|Edited by||Marshall Havey|
|Box office||$87.5 million|
Small Soldiers is a 1998 American science fiction film directed by Joe Dante from a story by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. It stars Kirsten Dunst and Gregory Smith, along with the voices of Frank Langella and Tommy Lee Jones. The film depicts two conflicting factions of action figures who turn sentient after being programmed with a military microprocessor, putting lives in danger when one faction turns violent in their efforts to eliminate their enemy toys and anyone assisting them.
Released on July 10, 1998, in the United States, the film received mixed reviews, but grossed $87.5 million on a $40 million budget. Small Soldiers marks the last on-screen film role of Phil Hartman, who died two months before the film's American premiere, and is dedicated in his memory. Additionally, it marked the final film role of Clint Walker before his retirement and later death in May 2018.
Top defense contractor GloboTech Industries acquires the Heartland Toy Company and as part of the move, Globotech CEO Gil Mars tells Heartland toy designers Larry Benson and Irwin Wayfair to develop actual live action toys capable of "playing back". Mars selects Larry's soldiers, the Commando Elite for the project and Irwin's creatures, the Gorgonites for their enemies, despite Irwin designing them as peaceful educational toys. Faced with a tight three-month deadline for the toys' release, Larry forgoes safety testing, then uses Irwin's password and chooses GloboTech's X1000 microprocessor to activate the toys.
Adolescent Alan Abernathy signs off for a shipment of the toys at his family's toy store without his father's consent. He and delivery driver Joe activate the leaders, Archer and Chip Hazard. Alan's neighbor and love interest, Christy Fimple, buys Chip Hazard as a birthday present for her brother, Timmy. Alan returns home to discover Archer in his backpack; he realizes Archer is sentient, but in the meantime, the Commando Elite apparently attack the Gorgonites in the toy store. Alan calls the company and files a complaint. Later, when Larry and Irwin listen to Alan's voice mail, Irwin is terrified to discover the X1000 was designed for smart munitions guidance; a Globotech engineer reveals the artificial intelligence circuit is designed to learn over time, but mass production was scrapped due to issues with electromagnetic pulse shielding.
The Commando Elite pursue Alan to his home and attempt to kill him and Archer in the kitchen. Alan is attacked by Nick Nitro, whom he mortally wounds. His parents, Stuart and Irene, arrive at the kitchen, having been alerted by the sounds of the scuffle there. Alan attempts to explain what is going on, but with Archer not supporting his explanation, neither of his parents believe him. The next day, Alan and Archer find the Gorgonites in a dumpster at the store. At home, Alan learns the goal of the Gorgonites is to seek their home Gorgon, which they mistakenly believe to be in Yosemite National Park. Through tapping the Abernathys' phone line, the Commando Elite learn of Alan's interest in Christy, immobilize the Fimples' household and take Christy hostage to force Alan into surrendering the Gorgonites.
Alan and Archer sneak into the Fimples' house to save Christy, but run into her Gwendy dolls, whom the Commando Elite engineered into auxiliary troops using Nick Nitro's chip. The Gwendys quickly subdue Alan. Archer cuts Christy loose from her bonds, and together they save Alan and destroy the Gwendys before escaping. The Commando Elite pursue them in kit-bashed vehicles, but all except Chip Hazard are destroyed in a crash. The two adolescents and Archer return to Alan's house, only to find both their families waiting for them, believing that Alan kidnapped Christy and immobilized the Fimples. This time, Stuart and Irene believe Alan and Christy's account of the Gorgonites and the Commando Elite, but Phil and Marion, Christy's parents, remain skeptical. Irwin and Larry arrive and talk to Alan about his voicemail. At that moment, Chip Hazard attacks the house with a new force of Commando Elite from a hijacked recall shipment by Joe and with more improvised vehicles and weapons. The Commando Elite attack the Gorgonites and the humans, resulting in the house's electricity supply being cut off.
Inspired by Irwin's advice to create an EMP blast, Alan heads out to force an overload of the power lines. Christy, Irwin, and Larry head to the Fimples' house to turn on all electronic items inside and wedge the circuit breakers open for a larger surge. The Gorgonites emerge and fight back against the Commando Elite. Chip Hazard flies to the top of the power line pole to stop Alan, where he battles and defeats Archer, but finds himself thrust by Alan into the power transformers, triggering the EMP blast, which destroys Chip Hazard along with the remaining Commando Elite.
Mars arrives in his helicopter during the police and fire department cleanup the next day. He pays Joe, the Fimples, and the Abernathys for damages, as well as buying their silence from the media, and orders Larry and Irwin to repurpose the Commando Elite for military use. Among the craziness of the aftermath, Alan and Christy part on highly amicable terms, having agreed to start a relationship with each other. Alan later discovers the Gorgonites have screened themselves from the EMP blast by hiding underneath the Fimples' large satellite dish. The Abernathys bring the Gorgonites to Yosemite National Park, where Alan sends them out in a large toy boat from his father's store to find their home of Gorgon.
Excluding Jones and Dern, the Commando Elite are voiced by cast members from the 1967 film The Dirty Dozen. Dern replaced The Dirty Dozen actor Richard Jaeckel, who died before shooting began. Excluding Langella and Cummings, the Gorgonites are voiced by cast members from the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap.
Miller and Balaski previously appeared in Joe Dante's films Piranha and The Howling, while the character of fellow The Howling cast member Picardo, Ralph Quist, shares a surname with Eddie Quist, his character in that film. Small Soldiers was Hartman's last on-screen role before his death and the film is dedicated to his memory.
On making the film, director Joe Dante recalled, "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." On the film's special effects, Dante stated, "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. 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."
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 48% of 44 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average score is of 6.2/10. The critical consensus states, "Small Soldiers has plenty of visual razzle-dazzle, but the rote story proves disappointingly deficient in director Joe Dante's trademark anarchic spirit." Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of B+ on an A+ to F scale.
Siskel & Ebert gave it Two Thumbs Down. Roger Ebert gave the film 2.5 out of 4 stars, saying: "The toys are presented as individuals who can think for themselves, and there are believable heroes and villains among them. For smaller children, this could be a terrifying experience." Caroline Westbrook of Empire Magazine gave the film 3 out of 5 stars and said: "It's Gremlins with toy soldiers, except not quite as dark or funny."
The film grossed $55.2 million in the United States and Canada and $87.5 million worldwide.
Filmmaker Gregory P. Grant filed suit against Steven Spielberg for copying his film Ode to GI Joe, which played at film festivals and earned him a Student Academy Award.
A soundtrack containing classic rock blended with hip hop was released on July 7, 1998 by DreamWorks Records. It peaked at 103 on the Billboard 200. The film score was composed and conducted by veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith. In addition, a video game based on the film was developed by DreamWorks Interactive and released by Electronic Arts on September 30, 1998. Kenner Products (a subsidiary of Hasbro) produced a line of toys, which featured the Gorgonites and the Commando Elite. Burger King teamed up with the film to promote their new product, the Rodeo Burger. They created a line of kids' meal toys tied to the film. They were met with some controversy after the film received a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. Burger King executives claimed this caught the company by surprise and they were led to believe the film would receive no higher than a PG rating. While the pamphlet accompanying the toys included the disclaimer "While toys are suitable for children of all ages, the movie Small Soldiers may contain material that is inappropriate for younger children," some restaurants accepted an exchange for Mr. Potato Head toys.
A remake of Small Soldiers was in development by 20th Century Fox called Toymageddon. The script was purchased in January 2014, and director Justin Lin was set to produce the film. The story was described to be set in a "toy factory that begins to run amok." At that time it was not explicitly stated to be a remake of Small Soldiers.
Due to the acquisition of 21st Century Fox by Disney on March 20, 2019, Disney later in August cancelled the film along with over 200 other projects, which revealed the film was intended as a remake of Small Soldiers.