Our current Movie of the Month, 2012’s I Declare War, is a darkly comic fantasy thriller that illustrates a children’s game of Capture the Flag as a gritty war story. Unfortunately, it’s one of our rare Movie of the Month selections that did not hit home for me, personally. Its premise is fun enough, and I was mostly charmed by its low-budget backyard filmmaking aesthetics, but the overall vibes are just . . . off. Specifically, I was tripped up by some of its more dire #edgelord one-liners, and I’m not sure that it ever escalates its high-concept premise beyond its initial novelty. Then again, that novelty was in playing children’s playground imagination fantasies as a straight war film, and that’s just not my genre. I found myself alternating between boredom and annoyance for most of its runtime, which is typically how I react to even well-respected war movies, so it might actually be successful as the genuine thing.
As disappointed as I ended up being with I Declare War as a finished product, I still think there’s a fun germ of an idea in its central conceit. It’s just also one that you can see executed in better, earlier films. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month (or at least the idea of it) and want to see more films where children’s playtime war games are treated with the severity of a genuine war epic.
Son of Rambow (2007)
Maybe the reason I Declare War made me squeamish was that the cast of kids are so unashamedly gross. They have the talk-shouting acting skills of a Disney Channel Original, but they also take transgressive delight in cussing and making 4-chan level jokes about blowjobs & altar boys. It’s off-putting. By contrast, I was thoroughly charmed by the 2007 twee comedy Son of Rambow, in which the kids are rambunctious but sweet in their fictional battlefield mischief. Like I Declare War, Son of Rambow is guided by a childlike sense of imagination, as indicated in its tagline “Make believe, not war.” The difference is that the kids in Son of Rambow are adorable little scamps, while the kids of I Declare War are gross little internet trolls. It may be a less authentic depiction of childhood personalities, but it’s a lot easier to stomach at feature length.
In Son of Rambow, two mismatched British schoolboys bond while making a D.I.Y. sequel to First Blood with a camcorder in the woods. Their bootleg Rambo sequel recalls the cutesy backyard-moviemaking aesthetics of similar comedies like Brigsby Bear & Be Kind Rewind, focusing more on the anything-can-happen chaos of a child’s imagination than the grim logistics of real-life warfare. While the kids of I Declare War are obsessed with the traditional war-epic plot machinations of the movie Patton, the kids of Son of Rambow toss in whatever spur-of-the-moment whimsies pop up in their playtime: ninjas, flying dogs, killer scarecrows, whatever. You’ll either find their playtime antics cloying or wonderful depending on your relationship with twee whimsy. Either way, it offers a sweet counterpoint to the bitter battlefield grotesqueries of I Declare War.
Child’s Play 3 (1991)
Maybe it’s wrong to soften the harsh reality of warfare with twee whimsy. Maybe a proper alternative to I Declare War would have to sweeten its bitter truths with a different kind of genre-bending novelty. Child’s Play 3 is at least more somber in its approach to children playing soldiers in the woods, in that it’s set in a somewhat realistic military academy where young kids are forced to play make-believe that they’re adult killing-machines. Its most direct connection to I Declare War arrives in the third act, when their traditional wargames simulation is made tragically lethal – their guns’ paintball ammo swapped with actual bullets. Of course, the novelty in that premise is provided by the mischievous villain who supplied that live ammo: the supernatural killer doll Chucky.
To be honest, even Child’s Play 3 sticks a little too close to traditional war movie genre tropes for my tastes. Having to spend even 90 breezy minutes in its drab military school setting feels like being punished alongside Andy for crimes I didn’t commit. Chucky does a lot to break up the monotony of that rigidly uniform setting, though. It’s easily my least favorite of the original Child’s Play trilogy, but it’s late enough in the series that Chucky fully comes into his own as a mainstay slasher villain, quipping his way through every kill with fun catchphrases & cheap one-liners. Also, my boredom with its war-film tropes is rewarded with a last-minute trip to an amusement park in an incredible finale. That’s more than I can say for I Declare War, which never leaves its D.I.Y. military bases in the woods.
3615 code Père Noël (aka Deadly Games, 1989)
The ideal neutral ground between the cutesy whimsy of Son of Rambow and the military-school machismo of Child’s Play 3 is likely the 1989 French home-invasion thriller Deadly Games, making it the perfect counterpoint to I Declare War‘s playground wargames tedium. The problem is that it’s blasphemous to watch Deadly Games any month but December, since it’s explicitly a Christmas film. In the movie, a spoiled rich child plays macho protector to his empty mansion against a psychotic invader who’s dressed as Santa Claus (whom the boy mistakes for the real deal). To eliminate this threat, the boy suits up as a miniature Rambo, armed with an endless arsenal of high-tech gadgets & children’s toys to weaponize against the killer Santa. He treats his mission with the deadly seriousness of a real-life war skirmish, which is good, because the adult Santa very well might kill him.
Director René Manzor was reportedly pissed that his film was “plagiarized” by the massive 90s hit Home Alone, and it’s easy to see the connections between the two films’ shared boobytrap defense systems & Christmas Eve home-invasion premises. However, whereas Home Alone‘s boobytrap antics are played for broad slapstick humor, Deadly Games is deadly serious about the threat its enemy encroachment presents. The child’s response to the invading Santa Claus is charmingly imbued with playtime imagination, especially in his plastic weapons of choice. The severity of the resulting battle is genuinely thrilling, though, even more so than most actual Rambo movies. It skillfully toys with the exact boundary between childhood whimsy & wartime brutality that I Declare War clumsily aims for, but no self-respecting adult should watch it any sooner in the calendar year than the day after Thanksgiving.