Globotech used to specialise in technological applications for the military, but now they are branching out into domestic areas, and one where they can put their innovations to novel use: toys. They have purchased a company which design them, and their CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary) has arranged a meeting with the two remaining workers in that capacity, having sacked the rest. Both Irwin (David Cross) and Larry (Jay Mohr) nervously tout their latest ideas, but Mars is dissatisfied: why can't the toys ever do excactly what they do in the TV ads? Then he has a brainwave: there could be a technological solution to that.
Small Soldiers was a film dogged with bad luck, and that could be why its reputation never lifted above average when it was released, though as with all of director Joe Dante's films their particular sensibility lent themselves well to cult movie appreciation. In this case, the biggest problem was that one of its most beloved stars, comic actor Phil Hartman (to whom this was dedicated), was shockingly shot dead by his wife, a news story impossible to escape overseas, never mind in North America where he was most famous, meaning if audiences there had gone to watch this they would have been reminded of a depressing real life event. That was not the only drawback to selling the project the studio found.
Combine press which regarded it as far too derivative of Dante's Gremlins, as if that was a bad thing in this director's work, and worries about violence in a kids' movie in light of a school shooting branding this with a PG-13 or equivalent rating around the world, and it was as if its young target audience had been missed by miles. Yet as ever with Dante, his target was also the science fiction and horror fan in general, no matter what their age as long as they could get his jokes and references: for a start, the two rival factions of toys Globotech create with military hardware capabilities were led by the voices of Tommy Lee Jones and Frank Langella respectively, but their troops were voiced by surviving members of The Dirty Dozen (baddies) and all of Spinal Tap (goodies), with Bruce Dern brought in to make up the numbers of the villains when Richard Jaeckel passed away unexpectedly.
So if the idea of an Ernest Borgnine toy battling it out with a Nigel Tufnel action figure appealed to you, then you were just in the film buff frame of mind to enjoy Small Soldiers, but there was also an agenda about the ethics of giving children the toys of violence, however outwardly innocuous, and what effect it might have on their thinking when they grew up and decided that using their fists, or even going as far as picking up a gun, was the correct way to sort out your problems. This didn't quite stand up to scrutiny, as what the story didn't take into account was the playing with toys is essentially fiction-based, and most kids know the difference from a fairly young age - there was a strong element of the hippy-dippy social worker about its message.
Not that this stopped it revelling in as much mayhem as it could conjure up in its smalltown setting. What happens is that delivery man Dick Miller is persuaded by young Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) to give him some of the new product before it goes on sale in major stores. Alan's father (Kevin Dunn) owns a failing toy shop and his son wishes to give them a boost as his dad bans war-based merchandise from his premises, but everyone gets more than they bargained for as the Commando toys break out and try to destroy their enemies, the Gorgonites who have been programmed to hide and lose, typical for Dante to back the underdog in that the latter are the more sympathetic and the military are the more, shall we say, anti-social. Throw in Kirsten Dunst as Alan's unrequited love who has a supply of Barbie-esque dolls which can be twisted to evil ends by the fast learning Commandos, and the scene is set for carnage. Not that any human dies, so this was milder than Gremlins, but it still packed in the action in its have your cake and eat it fashion. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
American director of science fiction and horror, a former critic who got his big break from Roger Corman directing Hollywood Boulevard. Piranha was next, and he had big hits with The Howling and Gremlins. But his less successful films can be as interesting: Explorers didn't do as well as he had hoped, but illustrated the love of pop culture that is apparent in all his work.