Saturday, July 16, 2011

Small Soldiers

In 1998, the movie-going populace could easily be divided with one simple question: Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line? But there was always only one right answer, and that’s Small Soldiers. Joe Dante’s cutting satire shows up the hollow platitudes of its more prestigious war-movie brethren, all while conveying the simple joys of blowing shit up. As always, Dante is such an energetic entertainer that you sometimes forget he’s almost a better media critic than he is filmmaker (and he happens to be a very good filmmaker).

War becomes child’s play when a toy manufacturer unthinkingly installs some high-grade military tech into a new line of don’t-call-it-violence-call-it-action figures. These square-jawed grunts—known as the Commando Elite—are ostensibly heroes bent on hunting down the monstrous Gorgonites, a peaceful group that just wants to return to its homeland. These being little lumps of plastic, none of this should matter, but the military intelligence powering the toys also allows the commandos to learn and adapt. They grow more resourceful and increasingly vicious in their pursuit of the “Gorgonite scum.” When Alan, whose father runs a small toy store, gets his hands on an early shipment, he unwittingly unleashes a war on his own sleepy neighbourhood.

Actually, not just a war—Dante’s weird, wonderful comic imagination also runs amuck over this little suburb, spitting out all manner of wonky delights. Pop-culture references need not be dull, as a film like this proves. Every knowing reference comes wrapped in a layer of sardonic commentary. The score, for instance, cleverly parodies 1980s action movies by reworking the tune of “When Johnny Come Marching Home” with macho guitar-and-synth posturing. One of the film’s most indelible set-pieces is a double-tribute to Bride of Frankenstein and Gulliver’s Travels in which an armada of deranged, deformed dolls are brought to life, spouting cheery quips like “All my makeup is cruelty free” while threatening tied-up teenagers with nail files. Fever dream doesn’t begin to do justice to this stuff—it’s more like what you might dream up after snorting coke off the belly of a Barbie.

For all the goofy pleasures to be found here, there’s also something powerfully unnerving in the way Small Soldiers merges war movies with children’s entertainment. No one here wants to be a fun-killing scold and shield children from anything remotely upsetting—least of all Dante, I’m sure, whose films have always been happy exhibits of cartoon mayhem—but just what does this constant exposure to war iconography do to a child? For that matter, what does it do to the rest of us? Nothing makes the military-industrial complex quite so easy to swallow as a Burger King collectible cup. As we grow up steeped in images of war, the very idea of bloodshed loses something of its fundamental horror. What does the much-vaunted realism of a film like Saving Private Ryan matter in a world where real images of war are always at our fingertips? Only a stylized version of war, such as what Dante offers here, still maintains the power to upset and disturb. When reality ceases to shock, fantasy becomes the only way back into the world.

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