Directed by: Brad Bird.
Written by: Tim McCanlies & Brad Bird based on the book by Ted Hughes.
Starring: Jennifer Aniston (Annie Hughes), Harry Connick Jr. (Dean McCoppin), Vin Diesel (The Iron Giant), James Gammon (Foreman Marv Loach / Floyd Turbeaux), Cloris Leachman (Mrs. Tensedge), Christopher McDonald (Kent Mansley), John Mahoney (General Rogard), Eli Marienthal (Hogarth Hughes), M. Emmet Walsh (Earl Stutz).
Brad Bird’s debut film The Iron Giant was not a box office success in 1999 – barely passing $20 million, on a budget that Box Office Mojo estimates to be $70 million (IMDB has it at $48 million – although even then, the box office results aren’t good). This is probably why it took Bird a few years – and a change in company – before he got to make his follow-up film – The Incredibles – and why shamefully, The Iron Giant still has not gotten a Blu Ray release. The critics loved the film back in 1999 though – and in the 15 years since, its reputation has only grown – it’s at a point now where in a recent survey of people who work in animation, The Iron Giant ranked in the top 10 animated films of all time. Watching it again, I can only say that I think it’s inclusion alongside such films as Pinocchio, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Toy Story, Snow White and Bird’s own Incredibles – is fully justified.
The film has a deliberately retro animated look to it – and it looks even more retro now, given that it is done in the more traditional hand drawn style rather than computer generated images. The story takes place at the height of the Cold War – 1957 – and nuclear paranoia. The kids at school are shown an animated video telling them to duck and cover under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack (the video is quite funny – showing how everything around the desk and the child is destroyed, but they’re perfectly safe under that desk). Its small town America and it’s here where a fisherman will see something fall out of the sky one night – and he’s not shy about telling those in town about it although no one takes him that seriously.
The story centers on Hogarth Hughes, a young boy whose single mother Annie works as a waitress at the local diner, so he’s often left to fend for himself – eating Twinkies and watching monster movies on TV. Then one night, he thinks he hears something outside – and he heads out to investigate. What he discovers is The Iron Giant – a huge, hulking alien creation, who survives by eating metal of all kinds. When the Giant attacks the wrong thing – a power station – Hogarth saves him by shutting down the power. The giant is confused – there’s a dent in his head – and he follows Hogarth home, who does his best to hide him. The only person he lets in on the secret is Dean – the local scrapyard proprietor and “artist” – who agrees to hide the giant. Meanwhile, a paranoid, somewhat incompetent government agent – Kent Mansley – shows up in town, determined to find out what is going on, and he sets his sights on Hogarth.
The story resembles that of E.T. in many ways – as much of the action involves Hogarth bonding with an alien creature that he has to hide from everyone who will want to destroy or exploit it. The difference being that while E.T. could pass as a stuffed animal and be easily hidden – the giant is at least 50 feet tall, so that’s not really possible for him – and the movie has great fun in finding new ways to try and hide him in plain sight. Amazingly, the emotional connection in the film is what resonates most – as the giant is not just a giant robot, but a thinking, feeling entity. He may have been designed as a weapon – but he has at least some free will “You are what you choose to be” – Hogarth tells him.
Perhaps it was the old school setting that audiences didn’t want to take their child to back in 1999. I was thoroughly charmed by another old school film a few years ago – Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie – which I thought would be good for older children, but audiences stayed away. They seem comfortable taking their children to any brightly colored piece of crap churned out by the studios – but something with a little more darkness to the story – a darkness that I think children understand, and can deal with – seems to be out of the question. Here, the time and place are essential to the story – Bird taps into the paranoia of nuclear destruction, the fear of the Russians who had just launched Sputnik, as well as recreating some of the fears expressed in the science fiction movies of that time period. But he does it all in a way that won’t really scare or confuse children – Hogarth only partly understands it all himself, and children will feel the same way. Watching the film with my two and a half year old, I doubt she got the intricacies of the story, and know she didn’t get all the references to 1950s America – but she was drawn into the movie anyway (the climax upset her a little, until the end of the movie). Kids have a way of intuiting these types of movies, and don’t demand the same level of understanding that many adults do – particularly the ones who treat movies and TV shows like a giant puzzle they need to solve and explain away. Kids don’t to do that.
The climax of the movie is truly wonderful, and truly heartbreaking. I remember being a 17 year old watching the film on VHS in my basement with tears running down my face (I didn’t cry in movie very often then – I’ve become a big softy ever since I had kids) – and even now knowing what happens, it still has the same power over me. It is the simple goodness of the Giant that does it.
The Iron Giant is a great animated film. The style of the film is wonderful – one of the more distinctive of the non-Disney animated films of its time. The story is wonderful and heartfelt – and shows even in his first film, Bird had a knack for storytelling. He has since moved on from animation – after The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille (two of Pixar’s very best films) – he’s now directed the latest Mission: Impossible film (which was probably the best of the series) – and is working on two other live action films. That’s too bad, as Bird has to rank among the best directors of animation of all time with his great animated film. There are many people who could make an entertaining Mission: Impossible film. Based on the fact that no one has really followed in his footsteps in the last 15 years, I wonder if anyone else could direct a film like The Iron Giant.