|Directed by||Joe Dante|
|Edited by||Marshall Harvey|
|Music by||Jerry Goldsmith|
|Box office||$87.5 million|
Small Soldiers is a 1998 American action comedy film directed by Joe Dante and written by Gavin Scott, Adam Rifkin, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio. It stars Kirsten Dunst and Gregory Smith, along with the voices of Frank Langella and Tommy Lee Jones. It depicts two factions of toys which turn sentient after being programmed with a military microprocessor, putting in danger when one faction ultimately turns lethal.
Released on July 10, 1998, in the United States, the film received mixed reviews, but grossed $87.5 million on a $40 million budget. Small Soldiers marks the last on-screen film role of Phil Hartman, who was murdered two months before the film's American premiere, and is dedicated in his memory. It was also the final film role of Clint Walker.
Top defense contractor GloboTech Industries acquires the Heartland Toy Company and as part of the move, Globotech CEO Gil Mars commissions Heartland toy designers Larry Benson and Irwin Wayfair to develop actual live action toys capable of "playing back". Mars selects Larry's Commando Elite for the project and Irwin's Gorgonites for their enemies. Faced with a tight three-month deadline for the toys' release, Larry forgoes safety testing, then uses Irwin's password and chooses GloboTech's X1000 microprocessor to activate the toys.
Teenager Alan Abernathy signs off for a shipment of the toys at his family's toy store without his father's consent. He and delivery driver Joe activate Archer and Chip Hazard. Alan's neighbor and love interest, Christy Fimple, buys Chip Hazard for her brother Timmy's birthday. Alan returns home to discover Archer in his backpack. Meanwhile, the Commando Elite apparently attack the Gorgonites in the toy store. Alan calls the company and files a complaint. Later, when Larry and Irwin listen to Alan's voice mail, Irwin shockingly discovers the X1000 was designed for smart munitions guidance; a Globotech engineer reveals the artificial intelligence circuit is designed to learn over time within the confines of the software's programming, but issues with electromagnetic pulse shielding halted mass production.
The Commando Elite pursue Alan to his home and attempt to interrogate and kill Archer in the kitchen. Alan intervenes and is wounded by Nick Nitro, whom he partially destroys by shoving in the garbage disposal. His parents, Stuart and Irene, arrive in the kitchen, having heard the sounds of the scuffle. Alan attempts to explain what is going on, but with Archer not supporting his explanation, neither believe him. The next day, Alan and Archer find the Gorgonites in a dumpster at the store. At home, Alan learns that the Gorgonites seek to find their home Gorgon, which they mistakenly believe to be in Yosemite National Park. Through tapping the Abernathys' phone line, the Commando Elite learn of Alan's interest in Christy, tie up and gag Timmy, sedate and subdue the Fimples and use the destroyed Nick Nitro's AI chip to engineer Christy's Gwendy fashion dolls as reinforcements. The Commando Elite then take Christy hostage to force Alan into surrendering the Gorgonites.
Alan and Archer sneak into the Fimples' house to save Christy, but the Gwendy dolls subdue Alan. Archer frees Christy from her bonds, and together they save Alan and destroy the Gwendys before escaping. The Commando Elite pursue them in improvised vehicles, but all except Chip Hazard are destroyed in a crash. Alan, Christy and Archer return to Alan's house, only to find both their families waiting for them, believing that Alan kidnapped Christy and immobilized the Fimples. This time, Stuart and Irene believe Alan and Christy's account of the Gorgonites and the Commando Elite, but Phil and Marion, Christy's parents, remain skeptical. Irwin and Larry arrive and talk to Alan about his voicemail, but Chip Hazard then attacks the house with a new force of Commando Elite from a hijacked recall shipment by Joe and with more improvised vehicles and weapons. The Commando Elite attack the Gorgonites and the humans, causing the house's electricity supply to short out.
Inspired by Irwin's advice to create an EMP blast, Alan heads out to force an overload of the power lines. Christy, Irwin, and Larry head to the Fimples' house to turn on all electronic items inside and wedge the circuit breakers open for a larger surge. The Gorgonites emerge and fight back against the Commando Elite. Chip Hazard flies to the top of the power line pole to stop Alan, where he battles and defeats Archer, but Alan thrusts him into the power transformers just as Larry and Irwin activate the breakers, triggering the EMP blast, which destroys him along with the remaining Commando Elite.
Mars arrives in his helicopter during the police and fire department cleanup the next day. He pays Joe and both families for damages, as well as buying their silence from the media, and orders Larry and Irwin to repurpose the Commando Elite for a military use before they head back to the Heartland Toy Company. Among the craziness of the aftermath, Alan and Christy part on highly amicable terms, having agreed to start a relationship with each other. Alan later discovers that the Gorgonites have evaded the EMP blast by hiding underneath the Fimples' large satellite dish. The Abernathys bring the Gorgonites to Yosemite National Park, where Alan sends them out in a large toy boat from his father's store to find their home of Gorgon.
Small Soldiers was Hartman's last on-screen role before his death and the film is dedicated to his memory.
Excluding Jones and Dern, the Commando Elite are voiced by cast members from the 1967 film The Dirty Dozen. Dern replaced The Dirty Dozen actor Richard Jaeckel, who died before shooting began. Excluding Langella and Cummings, the Gorgonites are voiced by cast members from the 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap. The film was the last role for Walker before his retirement from acting.
On making the film, director Joe Dante recalled, "Originally I was told to make an edgy picture for teenagers, but when the sponsor tie-ins came in the new mandate was to soften it up as a kiddie movie. Too late, as it turned out, and there are elements of both approaches in there. Just before release it was purged of a lot of action and explosions." On the film's special effects, Dante stated, "We were planning to use a lot of Stan Winston's puppets—he had made some very elaborate puppets that could do a lot of things. But in practice, we found it was much simpler and cheaper to let the CGI people do the work after we'd shot the scenes. So, I would say, it's one-third puppetry and the rest CGI in Small Soldiers, even though the original idea was to do mostly puppetry."
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 49% of 45 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average score is of 6.2/10. The critical consensus states, "Small Soldiers has plenty of visual razzle-dazzle, but the rote story proves disappointingly deficient in director Joe Dante's trademark anarchic spirit." Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of B+ on an A+ to F scale.
Siskel & Ebert gave it Two Thumbs Down. Roger Ebert gave the film 2.5 out of 4 stars, saying: "The toys are presented as individuals who can think for themselves, and there are believable heroes and villains among them. For smaller children, this could be a terrifying experience." Caroline Westbrook of Empire Magazine gave the film 3 out of 5 stars and said: "It's Gremlins with toy soldiers, except not quite as dark or funny."
The film grossed $55.2 million in the United States and Canada and $87.5 million worldwide.
Filmmaker Gregory P. Grant filed suit against Steven Spielberg, DreamWorks and Universal Pictures for copying his film Ode to GI Joe, which played at film festivals and earned him a Student Academy Award.
A soundtrack containing classic rock blended with hip hop was released on July 7, 1998, by DreamWorks Records. It peaked at 103 on the Billboard 200. The film score was composed and conducted by veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith. In addition, a video game based on the film was developed by DreamWorks Interactive and released by Electronic Arts on September 30, 1998. Kenner Products (a subsidiary of Hasbro) produced a line of toys, which featured the Gorgonites and the Commando Elite. Burger King teamed up with the film to promote their new product, the Rodeo Burger. They created a line of kids' meal toys tied to the film. They were met with some controversy after the film received a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Burger King executives claimed this caught the company by surprise as they were led to believe the film would receive no higher than a PG rating. According to Joe Dante, the MPAA gave the film a PG-13 rating due to the scene in which the Commando Elite put drugs in Phil and Marion's drink. While the pamphlet accompanying the toys included the disclaimer "While toys are suitable for children of all ages, the movie Small Soldiers may contain material that is inappropriate for younger children," some restaurants accepted an exchange for Mr. Potato Head toys.
A remake of Small Soldiers was in development by 20th Century Fox called Toymageddon. The script was purchased in January 2014, and director Justin Lin was set to produce the film. The story was described to be set in a "toy factory that begins to run amok." At that time it was not explicitly stated to be a remake of Small Soldiers.
Due to the acquisition of 21st Century Fox by Disney on March 20, 2019, Disney later in August cancelled the film along with over 200 other projects, which revealed the film was intended as a remake of Small Soldiers.