A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

THE IRON GIANT jjjj

10th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1999, PG, 81 mins.

 

Voices Of:
Annie Hughes: Jennifer Aniston / Hogarth Hughes: Eli Marienthal / Dean McCoppin: Harry / Connick Jr. / Iron Giant: Vin Diesel / Kent Mansley: Christopher McDonald / Gen. Rogard: John Mahoney

Directed By Brad Bird / Written By Tim McCanlies And Bird, based on the book The Iron Man By Ted Hughes

Brad Bird’s THE IRON GIANT has emerged as the last, truly transcending 2D hand drawn animated film.  During a relative age when studios like Disney and Dreamworks have all but abandoned traditional animation in favor of the high tech and glossy computer realm (and - most recently and most problematically - the 3D realm), films like THE IRON GIANT are largely all but extinct at the multiplexes now.  

However lushly exquisite, detailed, innovative and splashy modern artists are with pixels instead of paintbrushes, there still remains a real place of deep admiration among film fans and animation aficionados for the type of spontaneous creativity and vision that 2D animated films have.  People who worship the Pixar catalogue of titles forget that it was the 2D films that preceded them that are the reason for their existence in the first place. 

History aside, THE IRON GIANT remains – aside from its aesthetic choices and techniques used – one of the finest examples of cinematic animation and storytelling over the last decade.  Yes, the film certainly does look quite antiquated through contemporary eyes (which have been starved for traditional animated fare for several years), but Bird’s film still has that innocently timeless aura, perhaps attributed to the fact that the film is a joyous celebration of the freedom and ingenuity that animation has over other genres.  

The artistic choices on display here were quite bold – if not a bit of a gamble: What the 2D hand drawn cels accomplish is to create a nice harmony with the underlining story and themes of the film.  Upon recently watching MONSTERS VS ALIENS – which was aggressively and inopportunely touted as the next grand watershed for animation with its Digital 3D spectacle – it dawned on me that all of the flashy, candy colored, and ostentatious flair in the world could not help to compensate for a good script and agreeable characters.  Oddly enough, THE IRON GIANT's low key and under-the-radar artistic style allows for its narrative to breathe and simmer with a bit more latitude and depth.  Of course, the film still looks fantastic, and is a marvel of imagination, but the real core to the film remains its story of friendship.  If the film was presented in 3D, for example, I fear that all of its heart and soul would have been utterly and hopelessly lost the instant I was forced to put on those glasses. 

Despite the film’s overall simplicity in design and execution, the making of the THE IRON GIANT was anything but.  Back in the mid-to-late 1990’s Brad Bird was not a two-time Oscar winning filmmaker, nor was he barely a blip on Hollywood’s radar.  He started in animation rather inauspiciously, serving as a director and consultant on TV’s THE SIMPSONS and would later cut his teeth working on THE CRITIC and KING OF THE HILL.  Around this time was when he pitched Warner Brother’s his desire to adapt Ted Hughes' 1968 novel THE IRON MAN: A CHILDREN’S STORY IN FIVE NIGHTS for animated silver screen treatment.   

The source material itself and its basic ideas are maintained on screen, but Bird rather judiciously decided to use Hughes’s work as a blueprint instead of a script bible.  Often described by some as a modern fairy tale blended with the modern trappings of science fiction, the novel concerns the unexpected arrival of a giant metal man from the cosmos to England.  The giant mechanized behemoth lays much of the industrial farm equipment to waste in an English countryside before he develops a highly unlikely friendship with a local young boy.   

Development for the film adaptation began as early as 1994, but the whole project really started to germinate with promise once Bird signed on to direct.  He then hired Tim McCanlies (who would later go on the pen many episodes of TV’s SMALLVILLE) to work out Hughes' ambitious tale into script form.  The script was eventually given final approval by author himself and then the real struggle of production and promotion began, the latter being one of the most haphazardly planned in recent movie history; more on that later. 

Bird, by his own admission, was keenly impressed with the overall mythology of Hughes' written words, and when he expressed a desire to transplant that to the big screen, Warner Brothers animation studio heads gave the then virginal film director an astounding level of creative control over the project.  This can probably be best felt in seeing how Bird set the film squarely and securely within the real life socio-political era of the 1950’s Cold War America, which still feels like a truly shrewd and daring choice.  THE IRON GIANT still maintains the outer appearance of a light, free-spirited, and family friendly entertainment (which it is to highly agreeable levels), but by perceptively placing the film within the framework of the rampant paranoia of McCarthyism, Bird and company grounded this fantasy with an undercurrent of pessimism and tension, something that far too many cutesy and cookie cutter animated films today fail to approximate.   

Sharp and intelligent viewers will, no doubt, latch themselves on to THE IRON GIANT’s political and social messages, but there is no denying that beneath all of that is a considerable amount of charm, whimsicality, and joyfulness to the story.  Nuclear and Cold War terror aside, it’s clear from the onset that Bird really desired to retell the classic story of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, and the fingerprints of the that landmark 1982 film can be felt all the way through Bird’s tale.  

Just consider the similarities:

Both E.T. and THE IRON GIANT have a very young boy, being raised by a lonely single mother, that yearns for escape and friendship from the monotony of his everyday existence. 

Both E.T. and THE IRON GIANT have a being (granted, in a gigantic and steel constructed form in GIANT) from the stars that lands on earth and is stranded. 

Both E.T. and THE IRON GIANT have the alien being and the boy strike up an unusually close friendship, considering their stark differences. 

Both E.T. and THE IRON GIANT have scenes where the boy tries to acclimatize the alien to the world’s customs, even managing to train the creature to speak and communicate. 

THE IRON GIANT has the Federal government striving to discover the whereabouts of the alien being so that they can eliminate it as a threat to national security.  In E.T. the Feds wish to capture the alien and research it.

Both E.T. and THE IRON GIANT have a rousing and tear-inducing conclusion where the alien and the boy are forced, for one reason or another, to acknowledge their love for one another and unavoidably part ways. 

If there were one thing that could be negatively attributed to Bird’s film then it would be that it does not even cloak the notion that it is a not-so-subtle E.T. copycat.  Yet, short-sided critics upon the film’s release grabbed a hold of that overly simplistic analysis and used it to lambaste THE IRON GIANT, but what they failed to see was that Bird’s efforts – vastly unlike the multitude of truly wretched E.T. rip-offs that occurred in that film’s wake – had a story ripe with poignancy that felt palpable despite its otherworldly concepts.  The characters of the boy and “iron giant” are unavoidably likeable and disarming, which only benefits the film’s sense of emotionally grounding the viewers; once you buy into these troubled souls and their plight, it’s hard to divorce yourself from them.  Only obstinate cynics will find fault with the film’s sensitivity. 

The story itself is told with both straightforwardness and a sense of immediacy.  It is the mid-1950’s in a bucolic American small-town, a period that History majors, no doubt, are aware that this was a time of heightened Cold War tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was certainly capped off by the latter country’s launching of Sputnik in 1957, spawning the space race.  Raging anti-communism and a very perceivable threat of nuclear Armageddon only further perpetuated America’s growing trepidation and suspicion of all things “Red.”  The further permutation of this sense of unease against the Soviets also saw the light of day in the popular movie culture of the time, when stories substituted alien invasions for the Ruskies.  Bird, to his credit, does a thoroughly commendable job of capturing the social minutia of this period: whether it be in the form of a classroom watching one of those pathetically inane “Duck and Cover” nuclear war films (giving advice on how to survive an Atomic War…yeah…right!?) or in the form of the sci-film films a child within the film watches.   

After a stunningly realized prologue set at sea, the story settles down to its working class town, which helps to level the film’s sense of verisimilitude.  Shortly outside of the town drops a 50-foot tall robot from outer space, which seems to have disabled its memory upon impact, giving the ‘bot a bad case of amnesia.  Back in the town lives a young boy named Hogarth (voiced pitch perfectly by Eli Marienthal) who lives with his single, hard working, blue-collar mother (Jennifer Aniston, given the right dosage of warmth to her maternal figure).  Hogarth, like all only children in a single parent home, yearns for companionship.  Well, one night he gets it when he goes to investigate why his TV antenna is missing.  Eventually, this leads him to a large power plant where he discovers the humongous iron man from the stars, who has managed to find himself trapped within the active transformers.  The boy, feeling sorry for the mechanical beastie, save its life and befriends it.  The only problem with this is how he will keep his new BFF a secret from his mom, not to mention from a X-files-ish, conspiracy-fanatical Federal stooge named Kent Mansley (the wonderfully droll and crazed Christopher McDonald) who is so enraptured by his hatred of the Commies that he thinks that this robot is a Russian conspiracy to destroy America. 

Much like in E.T., the pleasure of this story is to see Hogarth revealing all of the subtle wonders of the world to the Giant, like sight seeing, learning earthly customs and language, and swimming, the latter getting one of the film’s many laughs when the giant robot goes for a canon-ball dive inside a local lake and all but drains it upon impact.  Like Elliot and his alien buddy, Hogarth even teaches the robot to speak, albeit in largely minimalist baby talk.  The voice of the giant comes from Vin Diesel, who just may be the only actor with the proper gravely inflections to give this odd robot some ethereal personality.   

I think that the truly great family films are able to bridge the always treacherous and troublesome gap between sweetness and fun with sobering, well-intentioned messages.  On the “message” level, THE IRON GIANT is a social commentary of its troubled times, but it also even manages to engage in some meaningful discourse regarding the nature of weapons, how one (under certain circumstances) can be a wicked force of death, and the nature of right and wrong.  What Hogarth and the audience initially don’t know – but later learn – is that the robot itself has one soul purpose: it’s a technological killing machine that instantly goes on the offensive when provoked with violence.  Unfortunately, the giant’s amnesia gets in the way of its programming, which has disastrous results when he goes back online during a moment late in the film where he thinks his earthly friend has perished (I still find it hard not to get teary eyed during this moment).  Earlier in the film the boy tries to explain to the Giant that “you are who you chose to be”, which is driven home during one sad moment when the Giant sees the remains of a deer that has just been shot by hunters.  The Giant is capable of being one large “gun” and purveyor of wanton destruction, but the subtle point here is that he does not have to. 

Despite its 2D appearance, THE IRON GIANT has still not received much praise for the generousness of its artistry.  By “generous” I am referring to the manner with which Bird gets so many of the details just right.  Just look at Hogarth’s bedroom, which is adorned with posters of the time (like 1956’s THE FORBIDDEN PLANET) or with the film that he watches during one late night, THE BRAIN FROM AROUS from 1957 (an actual film).  Then there are even more discrete period references, like the issue of Action Comics #188 that the boy shows the robot in hopes of teaching it proper ideals of virtue and honor.   All of these little flourishes throughout THE IRON GIANT give it an instant sense of time and place.  We feel like we are a part of this world because of our innate familiarity with it. 

The art style of the film is also an asset, and although there are times where character designs appear bland and undemanding, the key to remember here is that Bird is going for a sense of atmosphere and mood; he’s not trying to overwhelm us with “wow” moments of invention.  Most of the 2D animation carefully evokes the serenity of the period art of Norman Rockwell and Edward Hooper: there is wholesomeness and stark clarity to the images here.  The Giant himself, a truly memorable creation, was, in fact, the only computer generated element in the entire film, which essentially was born out of necessity and not artistic hubris gone amok (the animators found the task of giving the metal man fluidity in 2D form to be quite challenging).  What’s interesting to note is that the 3D rendering was done to evoke the feeling of hand drawn cels, giving the robot’s movements a slight jiggle.  Regardless of techniques, the Giant remains an oddly loveable creation despite its strangeness and, of course, gargantuan size.  The makers of the film  imbued soul in it as a fully realized creation; he’s not just a one-dimensional toy product placement ready to be placed on a Happy Meal. 

Deplorably, THE IRON GIANT was commercially doomed right from its release date. One of the large criticisms of Warner Brothers over the years was its startling mishandling of the film’s promotion and advertising, not to mention release date.  GIANT was unveiled in the cinemas on August of 1999 while facing very stiff competition in the form of THE SIXTH SENSE, which would go on to become not only one of the biggest box office draws of the year, but an emerging critical and cultural phenom.  The opening weekend of THE IRON GIANT netted pathetic results (only $6 million in box office returns), which meant that, essentially, no one was seeing the film that pundits were narrow-mindedly referring to as a commercial failure.    

Thankfully, critical response of the time was excellent and the film received accolades in the form of Hugo and Nebula Awards for achievements in Dramatic, Science Fiction and Fantasy presentation respectively.  The film also became a sleeper hit when released on DVD when film fans and animation junkies perplexingly wondered where they were during its initial theatrical run.  Perhaps the one person who benefited the most during the disastrous box office wake of the film was Brad Bird himself, who would later channel his lack of success with it into a highly lucrative career directing some of the best of the recent Pixar computer animated films, like THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE.   If anything, his trifecta of these three animated films allowed him to emerge as one of the most endowed and fiercely inspired directorial minds working today. 

Ten years after its initial theatrical release, THE IRON GIANT still remains one of the marvelous hidden gems of the movies, a miraculously entertaining and frequently touching tale of friendship that appallingly got lost in the shuffle of other high marquee releases at the time.  It is one of those rare films that have benefited and been discovered by film viewers on home video, which has fortunately given Brad Bird’s intoxicating and soulful tale a much needed lease on life.  Perhaps even more noteworthy was the fact that this film was one that had a involving story and something worthwhile to say about our world, which is something that is getting easily lost in the seemingly endless parade of new 3D computer animated films, which hope to sacrifice the basic elements of all good films with lots of needlessly obtrusive eye candy.  The saddest legacy of THE IRON GIANT is that it seems to be the product of a bygone era.

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