Alright, I’m going to level with you. Some of these underrated and under appreciated movies aren’t the best. They’re cheesy, full of cliches, predictable, and often times don’t shell out the money for the good jokes.
BUT! That doesn’t mean the jokes aren’t funny. That doesn’t mean the movies aren’t cinematically well made. That doesn’t mean the films didn’t achieve what they set out to achieve.
These movies are fun, and most of them run the border on cult status. They all have a purpose, whether it’s parodying something popular, or taking on cultural fears, or putting situations into a new context. I hand picked these movies because they achieve what they set out to do. I’m not saying the dialogue is always great. I’m certainly not saying any of these movies deserve an Oscar. (Because most of those movies make me want to hang myself, so I will avoid them at most costs.)
I believe that the cheesiness is intentional, and it is something you should revel in. Absorb the absurdity, and cliche jokes. It’s a little escape from that shitty day, or emotional hardship. So, take it with this grain of salt as we move forward. Remember, sometimes the most obvious thing is also the best.
As always, THERE BE SPOILERS HERE. Though, all of these movies are at least a decade old so there’s really no excuse for not knowing what happens.
Now, this months topic is Small Soldiers.
A brief summary of Small Soldiers: A brain (David Cross) and a jock (Jay Mohr) walk into a room to pitch two opposite series of toys. One, the Commando Elite, a tough, gruff, and angry group of soldiers. The other, the Gorgonites, a group of monsters. The head of the company (Denis Leary) approves both toys and sends the pair on their way to buy the best artificial intelligence chips money can buy. That’s certainly what they get, in fact the chips are weapons-grade munitions chips which learn in whatever field they’re programmed in.
A down on his luck kid, Alan Abernathy (played by Gregory Smith who starred in all the best cheesy 90s movies) manages to get his hands on a set of the unreleased toys for his dad’s store. The young and beautiful Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst) requests one for her little brother. After that just about everything goes to shit.
The Commando Elite, played by half of The Dirty Dozen, and headed by Tommy Lee Jones (as Chip Hazard) go on a quest to destroy the Gorgonites and anyone who helps them. Don’t worry, it all ends fine with Alan, Christy, and their families rallying together to defeat these hyper-intelligent toys (who at one point manage to clone their munitions chips). Denis Leary comes in at the end and throws money at the problem, leading to a happily ever after.
Since you’re caught up we can delve straight into the pot of cheesy, hilarious, pre-2001 soup that is this film. The cast is so underrated, Phil Hartman as one of the parents, Kirsten Dunst as the plucky female lead, and so much more. The comedy level of the film hits a pretty high bar, with allusions to war movies, and all kinds of jokes designed to make you groan out loud (but laugh inside). Finally, the most underrated aspect of the movie is the subject matter it addresses with artificial intelligence and the way pre-2001 films looked at military conflict.
These factors combine into a comedic look at how military conflict is handled on screen, how it’s shown to children – which at the time may have been difficult to see, and was certainly pushed under the rug after 9/11. It was a Trojan horse. They hooked you in with the flash, the concept, and the toys, and then sprung this subtext on the audience, that apparently went over the heads of almost everyone who saw it.
I’m not sure if it’s because kids don’t care about three hour long war movies (or if it’s because the parents of these kids were also too young to see those movies) but the voice actors in this movie stole the show because of their previous work. Getting The Dirty Dozen to voice the soldiers was a stroke of genius. Going into it everyone would expect them to be the good guys. The ones who save the day, and discover the true meaning of freedom and friendship.
In fact, the outcasts are the ones who help teach the real lesson of the film. The Gorgonites are voiced by an equally impressive list of character actors, starting with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Frank Langella. The soft spoken, crazy, and sometimes immature, Gorgonites mirror the children watching the movie, and give parents a moment of relief from Kirsten Dunst and Gregory Smith’s wooden acting. The voice acting goes above and beyond by playing on what the audience knows about the actors behind the characters. It’s truly underrated casting, because Bruce Dern, Tommy Lee Jones, and Ernest Borgnine reprise roles as soldiers, but this time they’re the ones causing all the problems.
The cast aside, another reason this film didn’t get the reception it deserved and fell into my bin of underrated gems is the humor. Now, the best humor in the film comes from the Commando Elite. Since they’re the bad guys they get the quippy one-liners and turns of phrase. In fact, Chip Hazard delivers my favorite pep-talk in any children’s movie ever. It goes a little something like this:
Soldiers, no poor sap ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by being all that he can be. Damn the torpedoes, or give me death! Eternal vigilance is the price of duty. And, to the victors go the spoils. So remember: you are the best of the best of the few and the proud. So ask not what your country can do for you, only regret that you have but one life to live! The war against the Gorgonites will be won! Commando Elite, let the first shot be fired! Search out the Gorgonites and frag ’em all!
The allusions to other war movies are so palpable that in my head I started naming them. Apocalypse Now, Patton, Platoon, a JFK speech, a riff on the Army slogan. It’s all in there. There’s also easy jokes that kids can understand, like a reference to the (then popular) Energizer Bunny commercial.
And that’s what makes it so underrated. Some of the jokes are references to older, higher-brow, movies. Some of the jokes are references children will understand. It gives everyone something to laugh at, and breaks up the dramatic fare of soldiers learning how to clone munitions chips and trying to murder 7 people.
My final, and most important point about this movie is how it handles the subject matter. It’s not about what’s on the surface (though the puppetry was great) it’s about the subtext. They put these weapons grade chips into the toys, chips which are designed to learn in their programmed field. The artificial intelligence commentary is right there for the taking. This is what happens when we design computers to be smarter than humans, things get out of hand and the computers start to take over. Now, in this case it’s very small. plastic computers. But the message stands.
It also brings up the question of whether brutally going to war is the best answer. The conflict between the Gorgonites and Commando Elite shows the two sides of the same coin. Going to war, guns blazing, not giving a shit what you’re going to war for or why you want to kill these people. And the cautious side, who wants to take their time and learn all they can about the area, culture, and people. It’s underrated, mainly because I don’t think a lot of people picked up on that. The message behind the madness is there, and if you look close enough you can find it.
Overall the movie lacks a little direction, and the acting is stoic in parts. But it follows a clean format, has fun jokes for kids and adults, and works in a pretty heavy subtext. It’s enjoyable, and makes you think, which is why it’s wicked underrated and under-appreciated.
If you’re looking for more defense of this movie check out Damian Cannon’s review here. Basically take your head out of your ass long enough to look past the cheesy dialogue and action sequences to appreciate what this movie does on a higher level.
P.S. Not quite as underrated is the puppetry. Yep, I said puppetry. All of the “toys” were actually manufactured as puppets by Stan Winston Studio. They were contracted to design the puppets because it was too difficult to do it with CGI. And for the time, that was damn impressive. For right now, that’s damn impressive. Here’s a link to a video on how they did it.