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By Thomas Wheeler

In 1998, DreamWorks and Universal Pictures presented a concept that might arguably be described as "Toy Story with Attitude".

The story involved the creation of a new line of toys so sophisticated that they possessed a measure of artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, due to a mix-up, the computer chips that were installed in the toys were high-level military surplus that made the toys a lot more intelligent, and in some cases a lot more dangerous, than ever intended.

Called "Small Soldiers", the toys were broken down into two groups: the monstrous Gorgonites, who were actually rather peaceful creatures who only sought their home, the fabled Land of Gorgon, and the militaristic Commando Elite, who were out to destroy their programmed enemies, the Gorgonites.

Within the movie, a set of Small Soldiers made it to a small toy store earlier than the planned release date. The Commando Elite broke free of their packaging, and set out to destroy the Gorgonites. The Gorgonites, aided by a teenager named Alan Abernathy, eventually overcame the Commandos.

Although I didn't care for the Commandos being portrayed as so evil, I greatly enjoyed the movie and loved the concept. I was fortunate enough to visit Universal Studios in 1998, when they were promoting the movie -- and they were promoting the heck out of it. They had converted one of their soundstages for publicizing the movie, and had many of the figures and vehicles actually used in the movie on display (and if it hadn't been for the security guards and the massive glass cases...!). Costumed characters roamed the park, and clearly the Commandos especially were the hit of anyone's day, especially since they were allowed to speak and to frankly get away with a lot more than the average Disney costumed character. I had a great time.

Alas, for some reason, the concept overall didn't fare especially well. The movie did moderate business, but was not arguably a blockbuster. Some said that the PG-13 rating and the level of violence scared some families away. The movie performed well enough in its initial Cable release on HBO for that network to consider producing a series, but it never came to pass. Reportedly Steven Spielberg, who had a hand in the movie, said that if he ever did a sequel, the Commandos wouldn't be as nasty. Although that sequel has never happened, I think Spielberg has a point, since the Commandos proved to be immensely more popular than the Gorgonites.

Now we come to the toy line. Hasbro had the license, and although they turned out a decent series of six-inch figures, they made one classic, if understandable, mistake. Toy marketing logic says that villains do not sell as well as heroes. The villains of Small Soldiers were the Commandos. As such, they were short-packed compared to the Gorgonites. But, in this case, it backfired, since the Commandos were much cooler than the Gorgonites. The result was Gorgonites gathering dust on the shelves, while Commandos could scarcely be found.

Ultimately, not even all the Commandos would be made. Kip Killigan, the fourth Commando toy, would be released only on a very limited basis as part of a second series of Small Soldiers toys that barely made it out, while Butch Meathook and Link Static would never see the light of day. Compare that to the fact that one character thrown in with the Gorgonite toys, named Flatchoo, wasn't even a Gorgonite, but was from a previous toy line called the Belch Brigade, and he barely had a cameo in the movie!

Now, in fairness, much of what Hasbro DID offer was superb. I only wish that the Small Soldiers concept had gained the popularity of Toy Story. I'd probably have a complete set of these by now instead of just the two leads. Certainly the most impressive Small Soldiers toys were the 12" Electronic Talking ones. These looked like they had jumped right off the movie screen. They had plastic molded clothing, JUST LIKE the toys in the movie, the likenesses were so perfect that one wondered if they'd used the toys FROM the movie as a mold basis (and it should be mentioned that Hasbro was a consultant on the film and helped with some of the design), were well articulated, and overall, looked very cool.

There were, ultimately, only two 12" Electronic Talking Small Soldiers -- ARCHER and CHIP HAZARD, the leaders, respectively, of the Gorgonites and the Commando Elite.

Archer looks faintly feline in his face. He is one of the less-severe-looking Gorgonites, and probably the most prominent toy in the movie. It is Archer who befriends Alan Abernathy and convinces him to help the Gorgonites against the Commando Elite. Archer is probably best described as a "noble savage", primitive in his appearance but not necessarily in his behavior. In the movie, he is voiced by Frank Langella. The toy itself is not advertised as such.

Then there's Chip Hazard. This is one of the characters reportedly designed mostly by Hasbro. Chip Hazard is a no-nonsense military commander devoted entirely to his objective at any cost. He has a crewcut that you could put a carpenter's level to, a face of sheer determination, and a cool military uniform design.

There were actually two versions of the 12" Electronic Chip Hazard figure. The first did not use the actor's voice. The second version did use the voice of actor Tommy Lee Jones, and is denoted as such on the package. The phrases this second one speaks are different, and in at least one case more vicious. Also in at least one case it doesn't quite work. When the "Tommy Lee" version says, "Major Chip Hazard reporting for duty, sir," it sounds like he's half-asleep. There was also a little controversy about one of the other lines, where Chip Hazard barks, "All Gorgonite scum must DIE!" That didn't go over too well.

Personally, I prefer the non-movie-voice. The voice still sounds good, doesn't sound half asleep, and isn't issuing any death threats. Still sounds enough like Chip Hazard, and still sounds sufficiently "no-nonsense soldier"-ish, as well. However, this version is harder to find these days.

Small Soldiers has pretty well dropped off the radar. The toys are long gone, there's no talk of any sequels, and about the only time I see it anymore is if I see the DVD for it on display at Suncoast. And that's too bad because it was a cool concept with a lot of potential for more to be done with it. The original creator of the Small Soldiers concept, author Gavin Scott, even wrote a sequel book.

(For that matter, so did I, just for the fun of it, where I introduced several new Commandos and Gorgonites, and gave them something ELSE to fight besides each other -- large-scale robotic toy dinosaurs, including a 7-foot-tall T-rex that trashes a toy store. I'd like to think that Stan Winston, who helped design a lot of the character effects for both Small Soldiers and Jurassic Park, would appreciate that. I've obviously never published the story as I don't need a lawsuit, thank you very much.)

I don't know if Small Soldiers will ever make any sort of comeback. Personally, I doubt it. But I still have my collection of figures to enjoy, including what I regard as the pinnacle of the line, the 12" Electronic Talking CHIP HAZARD and ARCHER!