The Daily Stream: 'Small Soldiers' Has A Murderer's Row Of Voice Talent

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Small Soldiers"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Two iterations of toy lines that reigned over the 1980s — G.I. Joe and Masters of the Universe — go head-to-head in a battle for American dominance in "Small Soldiers," Joe Dante's 1998 skewering of an American public obsessed with make-believe fantasies of war. Its Everytown, USA is filled with characters concerned more with might and supremacy than community; Manifest Destiny materializes in neighbors' lopped-off tree limbs that block satellite reception. Leavened with Stan Winston-crafted animatronics and the dark comedy of "Gremlins," Dante's "Small Soldiers" contains one of the most acerbic portraits of gung-ho America to be found in the decade's cinema.

Denis Leary injects his signature cynicism into Gil Mars, the swaggering GloboTech Industries CEO for whom "learn" is a naughty word and violence is rebranded as "action." Mars envisions all-American toys that deliver on the commercials and are smart enough that "when kids play with them, they play back." In further all-American fashion, access to GloboTech's unlimited power and weaponry is casually handed to a couple of muppets. A pair of feckless toy designers (Jay Mohr and David Cross) equip the action figures with military-grade A.I. These toys do play back as promised, but the casualty rate is high.

The cast has Dante regulars like the late, great Dick Miller and Robert Picado, and features a pre-"Virgin Suicides" Kirsten Dunst as love interest Christy Fimple opposite the young hero Alan (Gregory Smith). Christy's father Phil, sporting cutting-edge electronics, is played by the late Phil Hartman in his final film role. Complementing the live-action cast, the movie's most underrated power is its inspired assortment of voice actors.

High-caliber origins

"Small Soldiers" is a feature from Universal Studios and the Steven Spielberg co-founded DreamWorks, coming in at a time when the studio was struggling to find sustained success in the shadow of Disney and the formidable new "Toy Story" studio Pixar Animation. While the "Jurassic Park" filmmaker had his slate full with production on a sequel and was in prep for back-to-back projects "Amistad" and "Saving Private Ryan," he still maintained a strong presence at the studio and went to bat for projects that thrilled him. In "The Men Who Would Be King," author Nicole LaPorte chronicles Spielberg bursting into an Amblin office, straight from the Universal soundstage where parts of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" was shooting, and breathlessly pitching a withering-on-the-development-vine toy movie to screenwriter Adam Rifkin. Spielberg paced the room and gestured through the plot, peppering the pitch with the characters' voices as needed. LaPorte reports Rifkin's recollection:

"Steven looked at me with an incredible expression of not really knowing what my answer was going to be, and asking me did I think it might be something that I might be interested in writing for him ... I couldn't believe that he actually didn't just know that I would be thrilled to do it."

Rifkin, who would pen one more movie for DreamWorks — the unhinged home invasion comedy "Mouse Hunt" with emerging director Gore Verbinski — would join Gavin Scott ("The Borrowers") and "Shrek" co-writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to shape the screenplay. Pulling largely from the artist talent pool at distribution parent label Amblin, the "Small Soldiers" storytelling team erect both a Spielberg fantasy — toys come to life — and a Joe Dante domestic disaster special.

The Commando Elite and associates

Despite its tiny plastic-molded hands holding tiny blades, "Small Soldiers" is less of a killer doll movie and more of a monstrous machine movie. On one side is the Commando Elite, hyper-muscular soldiers who lay siege and launch psychological warfare campaigns with the ceaseless menace of the miniature "Puppet Master" assailants. Major Chip Hazard is voiced by Tommy Lee Jones in one of the underappreciated performances of his '90s run. After years of serious turns in "JFK," and "The Fugitive," Jones would play, in order, Batman villain Two-Face, the straight man to Will Smith's rookie agent in Barry Sonnenfeld's "Men in Black," and a sentient toy commando for Joe Dante.

The rest of the Commando Elite contains voices that fans of "The Dirty Dozen" will recognize. George Kennedy, Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, and Clint Walker fill out the cadre with macho-marketed names like Brick Bazooka and Butch Meathook; Dante regular Bruce Dern ("The Burbs") would replace Richard Jaeckel after the actor's death.

Repurposed by the Major from fashion dolls to armed Franken-bimbo mercenaries, the Gwendy dolls that attack love interest Christy Fimple are voiced by "Yellowjackets" star (and former Wednesday Addams) Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Gellar's screams were recognizable to the teen demographic at the time due to the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series, furthered by back-to-back 1997 slashers "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "Scream 2." Between the pair, the Gwendy dolls overpower their human targets with commentary like, "If you can't accessorize, pulverize" — if it weren't for Jerry Goldsmith's brassy oompahs and cymbals, the sequence might be as horrifying as a swarming Compsognathus attack in "The Lost World: Jurassic Park."

The Gorgonites

Since the colonizers arrived with thoughts, prayers, and disease, America has been a land whose heroes master frontiers. Early figures like Daniel Boone grew to mythic status as tamers of the savage wilderness; tales of beast-men filled American settlements on the cutting edge of progress and a growing railroad industry. The perennial solution to the lore: hunt and eliminate. This monster-obsessed America evolves into Dante's Reagan-ized landscape, where conglomerates plainly act as cultural weathervanes with a firm pulse on that obsession and how to market it for maximum profit.

Soldiers need bad guys to kill, Gil Mars reasons, and so the peaceful, unique Gorgonites become the dragons for the hyper-aggressive Elite troops to slay. Originally designed to be educational toys, they're naturally inquisitive and friendly in the spirit of Ray Harryhausen's creatures — not so much monstrous as misunderstood and out of their element. The Gorgonites strike an alliance with Alan and fight alongside him in the house-to-house skirmishes that follow, opposite Warhawk toys that embody a national need to annihilate and conquer.

Former Skeletor Frank Langella does the voice for the gentle Gorgon leader Archer, playing it noble and endearing all the way through. Renowned voice actor Jim Cummings took a break from Smokey Bear commercials and "Looney Tunes" media to voice the one-eyed Ocula. Finally, the whole group gets turned up to 11 with the addition of the stars of "This is Spinal Tap" — that is, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer — as the resilient ragtag Gorgonites.

Sponsor tie-ins compelled Joe Dante to defang some of the biting satire and violence of "Small Soldiers" for the sake of family audiences, but the final product boasts one of the most eclectic and impressive cast lineups of the decade, just a year before Spielberg would make waves with his own ensemble war treatise, "Saving Private Ryan."