If you ask a 90s’ kid what their favourite childhood movies were, the list you’ll get is usually pretty consistent; Toy Story, The Lion King, Shrek, and Harry Potter will probably be in there, maybe include the first Power Rangers movie to mix it up before sprinkling in a few Disney Princesses to finish it off.
But when you ask a 90s’ kid if they remember Small Soldiers, something magical starts to happen. They’ll get giddy, their eyes will light up and the most susceptible among us might even begin jabbering uncontrollably as their entire body is flooded with twenty years’ worth of nostalgia for a movie they haven’t thought about in their entire adult lives.
I, too, had mostly forgotten about Small Soldiers, but there had always been something about it that stuck in the back of my mind. Was it because I’d enjoyed it so much when I was younger? Had I desperately wanted to see my own toys come alive? Or was it something else entirely, some secret insight that had been squeezed out of my brain the moment I learned algebra?
It was in this spirit of curiosity, combined with an absolute inability to locate it on any major streaming service, that I finally reached into my wallet and bought a used DVD copy online. I took out my Troll doll, put on my Jar-Jar Binks slippers and poured out a refreshing glass of Sunny Delight, ready to soak in the memories of a childhood half-forgotten.
But Small Soldiers was not the film I remembered.
I’d gotten most of it right; the film starts when The Heartland Toy Company, a small American toy manufacturer, creates two new lines of action figures, the hideous-but-kindly Gorgonites and the technologically advanced soldiers of the Commando Elite. But while the Commandos were designed to wage war, the Gorgonites had originally been created to teach kids about the importance of exploration and research. When this pitch was rejected by the CEO of GloboTech, the corporation that had just purchased Heartland Toys, the Gorgonites were repackaged as a group of weak, cowardly enemies for the Commandos to destroy.
Desperate to save their jobs, the toy’s creators rush them into production and inadvertently imbue their creations with life via the incorporation of some military-grade hardware. But the weekend before the toys are due to be released, a socially-troubled young man named Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) convinces a delivery driver to let a few boxes ‘fall off the truck’ so he can sell them at his father’s store, determined to prove to his anti-war dad that selling violent toys is the best way to make money. This proves to be a good choice and Alan immediately sells two units to his new neighbours.
But these ‘Smart Toys’ are too smart for their own good. The military microchips that they’ve been installed with exaggerate the features of their design, turning the Gorgonites into a group of everything-phobic nerds and the Commando Elite into sociopathic warmongers hell-bent on the eradication of their non-violent nemeses. The conflict between these living dolls escalates until eventually hundreds of Commando Elite are engaged in sub-urban warfare against Alan and the Gorgonites, as well as the small band of humans they’ve managed to gather around them.
Just as all seems lost, the humans discover that they can destroy the Commandos by blowing up an electrical transformer, generating an electro-magnetic pulse that would fry their microprocessors. This process, however, would also destroy the peaceful Gorgonites. Something something, the plan works and all the Commandos are destroyed, something something else, the Gorgonites were actually protected by a fallen satellite dish and the film ends as they are released into the wild to live happily ever after.
Very solid, very recognisable structure for a kids’ movie of this era. But there are some unusual details that I didn’t notice the first time around. In particular, there are a surprising number of criticisms of the relationship between the military and consumerist culture hidden between the layers of this otherwise forgettable 90s’ movie. So over the course of this essay, I’m going to be addressing how Small Soldiers breaks downs the Military-Industrial Complex and its function, as well as the way it seems to criticise the way American culture approaches education.
Now while you, the smart, well-read, stunningly attractive person reading this essay, have probably heard of ‘The Military-Industrial Complex’ before, not everyone has had it laid out in explicit detail so that’s where we’re going to start.
The Military-Industrial Complex is a system that has evolved within capitalist economics in order to generate profits from warfare. While this system is most strongly associated with American economic policy, it exists throughout the entire sphere of the ‘developed’ world (although this phrasing is problematic). Less formally, the Military-Industrial Complex is a cancerous machine that consumes human lives while spitting out cash for corporate oligarchs. Like a disease, this system infects everything it touches – since it exists within capitalism, in which an individual’s wealth is directly proportionate to their power, it has enough resources to corrupt just about anyone, ultimately increasing its power and perpetuating this economic system.
The basic structure goes something like this; private companies are allowed to invent new weapons and bombs because capitalism holds that ‘the profit motive’, i.e. the desire to make money, is the most effective way to drive rapid innovation and, in turn, innovation will lead to more effective guns and bombs. Then, any government who wants to either start a war, perpetuate an ethnic cleansing or protect itself against revolution will buy these weapons, generating profits for the companies who produce them. Obviously, it’s always in these company’s best interest to make sure that all wars last as long as possible, so they take the profits from their weapons sales and invest this money into lobbying the government to continue dragging out all international conflicts, in addition to supporting the election of pro-war political candidates and promising high-paying consultancy jobs to the individuals involved in making these decisions. This way, the arms industry takes your tax money from the government and uses it to ensure the continuation of unpopular wars in order to receive even more of your tax money in the future, creating an infinite loop of profit where the only people getting screwed over are the public, who this system doesn’t really care about.
Keep this in mind while you’re watching, because it turns Small Soldiers into a very different movie. In the film, GloboTech (the corporation that took over Heartland Toys) was originally a defence contractor who used its infinite wealth to expand into the retail industry. Referencing the model we outlined above, we can understand that this expansion into toymaking is therefore funded by American military efforts and that, by logical extension, this means that the lives of human soldiers and civilians are effectively being converted into their cash value, that cash is being used to build washing machines, microwaves and toys which are then being sold to achieve even higher profits, the money from which will then be spent on even more weapons.
And when we look at the evidence within the film, it’s hard to escape the realisation that Small Soldiers is not only aware of the Military-Industrial Complex but is also highly critical of its existence. As we’ve mentioned, in order to speed up the production process and satisfy the demands of their new corporate overlords, the toy creators are incentivised to abuse the system, using their relationship with GloboTech to obtain military-grade microchips to improve their toys while also skipping the product testing and focus groups that would have revealed their underlying flaws. These details show us that, as the avatar of the Military-Industrial Complex, Globotech doesn’t actually care about the end consumer but is only interested in improving its bottom line, a criticism that’s made explicit at the end of the film – after learning that a small group of toys successfully destroyed an entire suburb, the CEO of GloboTech doesn’t freak out and destroy them but instead decides to mark up the price and sell them to political rebels in South America, simultaneously paying off anyone in the US who could make life difficult for them. This works as a pretty good analogy for the way the Military-Industrial Complex corrupts everything it touches and also points out that this is a problem that can’t be fixed as long as society continues to value wealth over integrity.
So this connects the dots between Small Soldiers and the military-economic machine, but to what end? What point is Small Soldiers ultimately trying to make?
The most obvious one (and bear with me here) is the idea that ‘War is Bad’ and that the American military in particular is something monstrous. In one scene, we see Christy (Kirsten Dunst) in her bedroom – behind her is a poster that seems out of place, reading ‘War is not healthy for children and other living things’ on a tie-dye background. It’s a pretty clunky way to deliver a message, but’s about as explicit as you’re going to receive in any film, with the writing literally being on the wall. This message is later amplified in a scene where Christy’s father Phil (Phil Hartman, in his final on-screen role) sits down to watch a war documentary and states, in all seriousness, that he thinks ‘World War Two was my favourite war’. So, while the idea that ‘War is Bad’ might not exactly seem like a genius-level insight, Small Soldiers takes great pains to remind us that not everyone agrees with this and in fact the reverse idea, that war is good (or at least necessary), is one of the strongest mobilising factors of the US economy.
Perhaps a less obvious reading would be Small Soldiers’ commentary on the way America seems to embrace the Military-Industrial Complex at the expense of its educational institutions. This part is a little bit more abstract, but I still feel like there’s enough supporting evidence to address it directly.
In order to see this, the first thing that we need to look at is the inception of the Gorgonites. As mentioned above, the Gorgonites were invented specifically as educational tools to get kids excited about learning and discovery; the Gorgonites have been flung from their homeworld, Gorgon, and must learn about the human world in order to make their way back home. Their leader, Archer, is named after the crossbow that he uses in place of a gun; Slamfist, another Gorgonite, has a large boulder in place of his left hand. When the Gorgonites were lost monsters searching for their homeworld, these old-fashioned weapons were a symbolic both of their peaceful nature, as they hadn’t needed to develop more advanced weaponry, but also as a sign of hope that, through the research and learning they were designed for, they might become more developed themselves. However, when the Gorgonites were reconceptualised as enemies for the Commandos to destroy, the symbolism of their weapons changes drastically, morphing from a reflection of their peaceful and inquisitive nature to a signifier of their inevitable (and pre-destined) destruction at the hands of their more aggressive and technologically advanced enemies.
When considering this point, we also need to talk about Alan, our protagonist. You see, Alan has a problem with education; he’s been kicked out of two schools already due to his inability to follow rules and, despite being a bright kid with books and posters about animals and space, he thinks that homework’s a drag. It’s actually this aversion to academic authority that sets the plot of Small Soldiers in motion, since Alan’s family had to move home in order to find a school that would take him in.
In this way, we can see that Small Soldiers provides at least three pieces of evidence that all point in one direction; GloboTech rejecting the idea that education can be fun and interactive, the changing meaning of the Gorgonites technological development and Alan’s difficulty engaging in the school system. When taking these three ideas together, it appears that Small Soldiers is not only serving as a harsh indictment of the Military-Industrial Complex as we outlined earlier, but also comparing the way the US invests in its defence programme with the way it manages its educational institutions and, rightly, points out the fact that America seems to be far more interested in war than it does in education. Just to really hammer this point home, I took the time to look up some stats: in 2019, the US budget for education reached a record high of $81.2 billion dollars, where the US Defence budget for the same year totalled around $680 billion dollars, showing that the American government is about eight times more invested in warfare than it is in teaching kids.
But ultimately, Small Soldiers itself proves to be an imperfect vehicle. We can sit here all day and talk about how we should be valuing education over profit and violence, but Small Soldiers is a surprising violent film for something clearly targeted towards young children. Some parts of it, especially the scenes where the Commando’s are ‘recruiting’ some Barbie stand-ins, actually border on body horror, more Akira than Toy Story. In addition to the mixed messaging within the film, the marketing (which included a Burger King commercial and its own video game) both place the onus on the violence rather than calling for better education. Even the name ‘Small Soldiers’ highlights the problem – it’s a phrase that’s never spoken aloud in the film and can only be used to refer to the Commandos, but it sounds like a name pitched by some half-arsed marketing executive with two braincells and an inflated ego.
So yes, Small Soldiers is absolutely a film that criticises capitalism and in general and the Military-Industrial Complex specifically, but this message is completely eradicated by the medium of commercial cinema, like an epic poem scrawled inside a toilet cubicle. It’s been a fun nostalgia ride but I’m going to be leaving Small Soldiers where it belongs, a half-forgotten memory stuck in the back of my mind.