A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Small Soldiers is a 1998 movie in which soldier toys powered by advanced military technology come to life and wreak havoc on anyone they consider to be their enemy. The "soldiers" of the title are ruthless killing machines in the bodies of dolls who attack everyone around them with every means at their disposal, which means taking common household objects and garage tools and converting them into weaponry, such as nail guns, pointed nail files, and flaming tennis balls. There is some peril: Teens and an older man are tied up by the toys; one is held hostage; and a boy hanging from an electrical pole could either fall to his death or die of electrocution. Profanity includes "crap," "damn," "hell," "ass," and "sucks." The commando toys make sexist comments about the female Barbie-esque dolls they bring to life. The overall themes, satirizing the military-industrial complex, violent war-themed toys, and the negative influence of multinational corporations, make this best for tweens and teens capable of understanding the topics being satirized.
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What's the story?
In this action-packed film, toy soldiers, enhanced with top-secret military computer chips, go to war in a suburban neighborhood, threatening human children and adults in the process. A ruthless corporate CEO (Dennis Leary) takes over a toy and produces two lines of action figures based on military technology. The Gorgonites are peaceful if depressed aliens programmed to lose, and the Commando Elite is programmed to destroy them. The toys use smart weapons chips, which enable them to learn. Alan, the son of a failing toy-shop owner, befriends the Gorgonites, which puts him, Christy (the cute girl next door), and their families in harm's way. The Commandos fashion effective weapons and machines out of tools and appliances they find in Alan's garage. In the ensuing all-out war, the Commandos drug Christy's parents, tie up her brother, kidnap Christy, and destroy Alan's house before they're wiped out by an electromagnetic pulse generated when Alan climbs a power pole and short-circuits the transformers.
Is it any good?
SMALL SOLDIERS is suspenseful and exciting, but this movie contains a level of violence that would earn it an R rating if most of the victims weren't toys. The lengthy climactic battle will have boys in the target age group cheering, while the topical humor (the send-up of Barbies is wicked) and allusions to other movies will keep older teens and adults interested. The special effects are amazing and integrated seamlessly with the live actors and sets. Best of all, the vocal casting is inspired; the commandos are voiced by Tommy Lee Jones and members of the original cast of The Dirty Dozen, while the Gorgonites are given life by Frank Langella and members of Spinal Tap.
But director Joe Dante's trademark dark comedy is overwhelmed by special effects and mean-spiritedness. More troublesome than the violence is the inhumanity and sheer hatefulness of the commandos. It's scary to think that children might identify with these muscle-bound, conscience-free murderers whose slogan is "no mercy." Worse, they may imitate the soldiers by fashioning weapons out of ordinary household items.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the film's violence. Do the toy characters make the violence more tolerable?
How is satire used to make larger points about the military-industrial complex, the marketing and creation of war-themed toys and dolls that engage in the worst of feminine stereotypes, and the outsized and often evil influence of multinational corporations on our world and society?
This movie was released in 1998. Do you think these themes are as relevant today as they were back then? Why, or why not?
- In theaters: January 1, 1998
- On DVD or streaming: August 28, 2001
- Cast: Denis Leary, Jay Mohr, Kirsten Dunst
- Director: Joe Dante
- Studio: DreamWorks
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: Misfits and Underdogs, Robots
- Run time: 110 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: violence and thematic intensity
- Last updated: September 21, 2019
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