Monday, April 17, 2017

Joe Dante, part XII: Real American heroes


SMALL SOLDIERS

Kids love social commentary, right?  Maybe not, but that doesn't mean we can't, while still appreciating Small Soldiers' finer points, like its comedy, its violence, its comedic violence, and (especially) its swerves into bona fide, no-kidding horror.

1998
Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Gavin Scott, Adam Rifkin, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and Anne Spielberg
With Gregory Smith (Alan Abernathy), Kirsten Dunst (Christy Fimple), Phil Hartman (Phil Fimple), Wendy Schaal (Marion Fimple), Dick Miller (Joe), David Cross (Irwin Wayfair), Jay Mohr (Larry Benson), Robert Picardo (Ralph Quist), Dennis Leary (Gil Mars), Frank Langella (Archer), and Tommy Lee Jones (Chip Hazard)

Spoiler alert: moderate


One of the clearest themes of Joe Dante's post-Gremlins career is that of our director walking toward a cliff, each new commercial failure representing one more step toward the day that people would simply stop giving him money.  Gremlins 2 was the largest single step; and its follow-up, Matinee, had brought him to the very precipice of studio irrelevance.  It explains how the pace of Dante's feature work had slowed to a crawl: between 1981 and 1990, Dante made no fewer than six theatrically-released films, not even counting his anthology contributions; between 1991 and 2000, he made two.

But our director hadn't been consigned to outright professional free-fall just yet: in 1998, as Dante clung to the slender reed of television, a hand reached down for his.  Dante looked up, and saw the bearded, beatific face of the man who'd given him his biggest break, all those years ago.  So Dante said, "Hi, Steven."  And his savior replied, "Hey, it's a man called Joe!  Have you heard of DreamWorks, my new production company?  Everything's gonna work out great from here on in!"

For those were the days where you could still be optimistic about things.

The film they made—Dante and Spielberg's last together—was Small Soldiers, which (get this) actually did turn a modest profit.  Dante nonetheless suffered from the collaboration: he was set to make a mean little satire of commercialism and militarism out of the fussed-over script they'd handed him—which included uncredited input by Anne Spielberg, Steven's sister—whilst DreamWorks wanted to make merchandising deals with Burger King and sell Small Soldiers toys.  (We call that "irony.")  But even the sanded-down version of Soldiers we got still appears to hit most of the essential points, with a razor-sharp premise that no amount of PG-13 dithering could completely dull.

We begin in the boardrooms of Heartland Toys, where we find its two chief designers, Larry and Irwin (a creative weenie and a soulless business-shark, respectively), each desperately pitching their own latest concept to their new boss.  Larry's offering, the Gorgonites, are a band of alien explorers, who would teach kids about geography and tolerance and other such boring things; Irwin's, the Commando Elite, are a squad of steroidal soldiers, who would teach kids about awesome violence instead.  Unexpectedly, the bigshot actually hates both.  Incensed by their dreary and derivative ideas, the boss demands his lackeys live up to the egregious puffery of their company's hyperbolic ads, and finally give America what he thinks it wants—a line of toys that can actually play back.  In the process, he combines their projects, recasting the Gorgonites as villains, and the Commandos as the heroes responsible for exterminating them.  (And say what you will about his cynicism, but the man has gotten more done in five minutes than his underlings have in two months.)

Unfortunately, Irwin takes a fateful shortcut during the development process when he purchases a surplus lot of military computer chips.  The toys Heartland ultimately winds up building—now empowered by DoD-grade artificially-intelligent CPUs—can indeed "play back."  But sapient machines programmed to be bloodthirsty killers don't make the best playmates, as our young hero Alan discovers after he wheedles a full set of them from Heartland's local delivery driver, Dick Miller.

Alan, you see, has been put in charge of his family's lame, old-fashioned toy shop while his negligent father's gone away to a small business seminar (where, presumably, he'll learn such advanced managerial techniques as "refraining from entrusting your barely-teenaged son with your store").  Yet Alan's intentions are honorable enough: he wants to show his dad that they could sell these hot new war toys, and maybe make some money for once.  (Not that Alan's amazing McMansion suggests they're doing anything short of "extremely well.")  Well, either way, these particular war toys are far from content to stay mint-condition in their packaging.  In short order, we've got ourselves a movie about tiny monsters wreaking havoc in a small town.

And, for some reason, that sounds familiar.

Hey, it's not like they deny it!  Whenever Dante's been asked if he'll make a Gremlins 3, he's always shrugged and said, "I already did."  And then one rather likes to imagine that Dante punches his inquisitor right in the face, for asking the same annoying, stupid question he's been asked a thousand times before.

There's no way around it, though: Small Soldiers really is Gremlins reskinned (and only barely-rewritten), taking on both its basic structure and its relatively-featureless protagonist (heck, even the way its protagonist lives in his family's attic).  At this point, it wasn't going to not steal Gremlins' romantic subplot along with everything else, and so Alan's crushworthy next-door-neighboor Christy gets herself dragooned into the melee too.  (Now, I'm not especially down on Gregory Smith's leading performance—why, he's at least as good as Zach Galligan before him, and it certainly helps a lot that he's not, like, 30 years old—but Soldiers suggests there could be a reason why his co-star Kirsten Dunst is still around and he isn't.  Then again, maybe chalk that up to Dante learning, too, for Christy never seems as aggressively tokenized as her Gremlins counterpart.)  Anyway: just because it's not original doesn't mean it's not better.

For starters, it has, by far, the superior conceptual core—or at least it does if you're interested in a coherent story.  (Obviously, if you're not, then the gremlins are in their true element—which is why The New Batch is the Gremlins that matters.)  But, assuming (mainly for the sake of argument) that you want coherence out of a Dante joint, then Soldiers offers something significantly less vague in its gestures toward satire, and it even offers something more agreeable in its broader action-comedy strokes, too.  For if the purest joy Gremlins offers is the idea of something innocuous and small going out-of-control and lethal, then "evil toys" (even without any satirical overlay) hits that sweet spot much more accurately.  It lets our kid heroes enthusiastically trash the symbols of the childhood they're more than ready to leave behind; meanwhile, the movie itself gets its jollies by perverting G.I. Joes into some of the finest movie monsters of the 90s.

And monsters they are: let us not overlook the note-perfect design of the Commando Elite.  Musclemen exaggerated into grotesques, the Commandos, even taking into account that we're watching a movie here, are just so ridiculously obviously evil.  (Even leader Chip Hazard, the most conventional of them, is still only what you'd get if you got Kurt Russell fighting drunk, gave him implants everywhere an implant could go, and then rendered him in plastic.)  But then, that is the late 90s—when the hypertrophic aesthetics of 80s bad-assery had retrenched into entertainment for stunted pubescent boys, and mutated into complete anabolic fantasy in the process.  A reflection of the heroes of their era, our Commandos could've been designed by Rob Leifeld or Todd MacFarlane, without Soldiers' sarcasm, and still turned out more-or-less identically.  And thus all the well-articulated puppets built by Stan Winston, and all the (mostly) seamless CGI by ILM, and all the movie-reference vocal performances from the surviving cast of The Dirty Dozen (plus Bruce Dern, because if you already have his phone number, why not?)—these are all just icing on the cake, though Soldiers (also like a cake, I suppose) could hardly do without them.

But then, the most indispensable ingredient in the Commandos' creation remains one of their voice actors.  Drawing on his legendary orneriness (and, of course, drawing on his drawl), the great Tommy Lee Jones plays Hazard, and all of Hazard's facepalmingly-stupid exhortations to combat, altogether flawlessly—which is to say, altogether straight, because Hazard is a man on a mission that, as far as he knows or cares, is wholly justified, simply because it came wrapped in a flag.  And so he might as well enjoy it.

If that sounds kind of familiar, too, well, that's because you could call Soldiers a riff on another popular, childhood-defining megahit, and you'd be just as correct as when you called it a secret sequel to Gremlins.  It's absolutely Evil Toy Story, too.  Only now there's a whole gang of Buzz Lightyears, and they aren't even nominally benevolent—but, although they're just as blind to their fictional nature, they're also rather more capable of understanding that their standard accessories aren't real weapons, and adapting accordingly.

But then, if any of it sounds overfamiliar, then that's because Chip Hazard actually sounds more like Donald Trump—only the murderous toy is more articulate, intelligent, statesmanlike, and handsome.

That leaves us with the reluctant heroes of this phony war, the Gorgonites, led by Archer (it is Archer who first makes contact with Alan, who turns out to be exasperatingly unawed by the surprise appearance of an AI who can pass the Turing test).  The Gorgonites, it must be said, are not as uniformly successful as their nemeses: the designs and characterizations fluctuate wildly, from Archer's noble voyager (voiced by Frank Langella with a dignity that's almost bleakly comic), to—well, to the rest of them, some of whom look neat, and some of whom do not.  (The best of the bunch is Ocula, a walking eyeball, who allows Dante to throw in the least-intrusive 50s sci-fi reference he ever made, in the form of The Trollenberg Terror playing on TV.)  But overall, the Gorgonites are arbitrary and (surprise!) really goofy—and voiced by Spinal Tap, of all people, for no reason that makes itself even remotely plain, except that The Dirty Dozen and This Is Spinal Tap are both movies that feature ensemble casts.  (Ocula, it's worth pointing out, is mute.)  Programmed to lose, this is where Soldiers deploys its aesop about not giving up and creating your own destiny; and that's fine, although this particular theme might've been stronger if the Gorgonites, as a group, were less disposable, and you especially cared whether or not they escaped liquidation.  Vexingly, a certain third act twist even dispels any accidental pathos they'd accrued as a result of Soldiers' fake-out kid's movie tragic climax.

One is still disposed to enjoy the basic notion behind the Gorgonites' struggle against the "good" guys, though—it might be the most obvious reversal in the world, but it still makes for one solid satirical backbone, upon which Dante and his many screenwriters can hang as many gags about the moral dubity of the military mind as they can think up, alongside just as many jokes about how willing toymakers were to exploit patriotism in order to sell expensive garbage to impressionable kids.  (In fact, Soldiers' script is at its sprightliest as a pure comedy when it's just dealing with Heartland's inter-office politics.)  And Jerry Goldsmith takes on the task of composing a customarily excellent score, which, like his ironic accompaniment to The 'Burbs, is mostly dedicated to mocking the whole situation, only this time with even more war movie riffs.

But then, that's another way that Soldiers, besides its hidebound 80s kid's adventure formula, feels like it perhaps ought to have arrived earlier than it did (it was, after all, in development for years).  For it is both very much a post-Vietnam film, and one that's clearly taking aim at the surfeit of violent toys that arrived in the final, victorious phase of the Cold War (but not so much, in the second half of the 1990s).

One's glad, however, that this story did get made when it did, since besides Soldiers' access to an effects technology capable of actually depicting it, you also can't easily imagine it being made just three years later.  And you definitely can't imagine them still having the nerve to include this film's absolute standout sequence—which begins when the Commandos arrive upon Christy's mammoth collection of "Gwendy" dolls.  The warriors leeringly describe these shapely pieces of plastic as "R'n'R," and that's funny and biting and not at all what you'd expect in a movie aimed at children; but we naturally end up in High Dante territory anyway, when Hazard, ever the strategic thinker, corrects his subordinates, and declares them "reinforcements."  Beyond representing a pretty seamless transition from black adult comedy to A-grade kid's horror, for these precious few minutes, Soldiers is scary—and if more stuff like like this legion of mutilated, reprogrammed Barbies is what Dante means when he says DreamWorks kept him from doing everything he wanted, then you can see why he complained.  (Or, hell, maybe he just means they made him shoot it in 'Scope: it's the first of only three Dante movies to feature that aspect ratio, though he acquits himself honorably in it.)


But DreamWorks might be why Soldiers lacks the one thing it still needs: a human body count greater than "none."  (Even characters who seem to have been explicitly marked out to die don't.)  Soldiers is unattractively willing to surrender its stakes at just about the moment that Gremlins was killing the folk of Kingston Falls with gleeful abandon.  It was the times, I guess: they'd changed.

Inevitably, it comes part-and-parcel with a certain evaporation of ideas about how to stage tiny monster action in the climax: thanks to that prohibition on human death, the bigger the Commandos' threat gets, the smaller it actually feels.  But Soldiers does get through it without ever getting boring; and, at the conclusion of the process, provides the most effective of the several "nobody learned anything whatsoever" denouements in the Dante canon, which would've been the perfect ending, if it were the ending.  (Sadly, Soldiers has loose ends to tie up, and it cannot do so without grinding them out, at least a little.)  It's enough, alongside the film's other weaknesses, to call it a less than a total success.  But it's still an awful lot of fun (Soldiers has no compunction about subjecting its plastic characters to Dante's brand of joyous comic brutality, to be sure); and it has more than enough cool kid's horror and proper subversion to call it "major Dante" even if it's one of his less well-remembered outings.  For that matter, it's much easier to simply watch than Spielberg's own '98 war film for DreamWorks—and, like I said, I'll take it over ol' Gremlins any day of the week, too.

Score:  7/10

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