The story of a young boy discovering and befriending an otherworldly creature is definitely not a new concept in cinema. Many movies have told the classic fable throughout the years, from Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial to the recent found-footage montage Earth to Echo. However, what makes these stories so beautiful is their bittersweet quality. As the child and the creature form a closer bond, we form a bond with the pair as well. Thus, when the ending arrives and predictable yet dynamic circumstances force the pair apart, we are heartbroken as well as overjoyed that good has triumphed over evil. Having grown up with these films and watched recent additions, I can honestly say that, apart from E.T., the film that demonstrates this formula the best by far is Brad Bird’s magnificent animated masterpiece The Iron Giant (1999).Distributed by Warner Bros. Animation, The Iron Giant is probably one of the greatest comeback films of all time. During its initial release, the film was a box office bomb, earning only $31.3 million worldwide against an estimated $70 to $80 million budget, which director Brad Bird attributed to poor marketing and promotion on Warner Bros. part. Regardless of profits, however, The Iron Giant received universal acclaim from critics (including Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel) and audiences alike, but it remained in the dark for many years. After a while, it received a cult following and has since become one of the most popular animated films of its generation.
Before I continue, I should probably provide a quick description of the book this film was based on. The Iron Giant is a loose adaptation of The Iron Man, a science fiction novel written by British poet Ted Hughes in 1968. For the most part, it tells the same story seen in the film. However, The Iron Man introduces provocative themes of rebirth, death, and spirituality that are far more powerful than those presented in the movie, and it introduces us to very dark and violent elements related to extraterrestrial invasion. In the book, the Iron Man encounters a monstrous creature (dubbed the Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon) that threatens to engulf the world if he is not appeased by humanity. In the film, the Iron Giant encounters his own monsters, but these are far more personal, such as his past history as a war machine, the awareness of violence and warfare, and the fear of losing his small human friend. There are no aliens from outer space or bizarre otherworldly messages in The Iron Giant. Instead, we are given a simple story with underlying themes of violence and warfare. And this is why it works so well. It is not complicated. The material from Hughes’ original story is present, but the films story is very simple and appealing. For me, this is what makes it such a great family film.As stated before, the movie follows the formula presented in classic pictures like E.T. The Extraterrestrial, but what makes The Iron Giant so unique is the manner in which its story is presented. In the year 1957, when the world is at the height of the Cold War, an energetic young boy named Hogarth Hughes discovers a giant alien robot in the woods outside Rockwell, Maine, a quaint little town that appears to be a single paradise in a time of violence. After a while, Hogarth and the robot form a strong bond and get into some wild and humorous adventures together, meeting some very colorful characters along the way. Soon enough, however, their friendship is shaken by the entrance of a paranoid government agent and the onslaught of violence as the army attempts to destroy the extraterrestrial machine. As the seaside community of Rockwell is thrown into chaos, the Giant eventually discovers his true path and rescues the people he has grown to love in one of the most heart-wrenching and powerful climaxes ever put in an animated feature, only second to The Brave Little Toaster and Princess Mononoke. The drama, pacing, and power of the story are so remarkable that you often have to remind yourself that you are watching cartoon characters instead of real people. That is how extraordinary this movie truly is.
As strange as it might sound, this movie reminds me of classic films produced by Hayao Miyazaki, with two examples being Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä: of the Valley of the Wind. You would think that a film that expresses the American ideas of the 1950s would be more modern and hip, but instead it reflects a gentle atmosphere that reminds me of these Japanese-produced animated films. This is due largely in part to the visual design of The Iron Giant. Its backgrounds are richly detailed and saturated with bright colors, even during darker moments. As we gaze at the dark blue of a starry night and the vivid gold of an autumn forest, we feel like we have wandered into a time apart from our own, when the world was simpler and yet far more dangerous. And, of course, the design of the Iron Giant himself is evocative of Miyazaki’s works. He is a massive robot with a simplistic, dynamic design that is eerily similar to the palace guards in Castle in the Sky, and, like them, he exhibits the gentleness of a child and the ferocity of a monster.
The most fascinating character, however, is the Giant himself (voiced by Vin Diesel). An alien war machine of impressive size and power, this character might be the titular protagonist of the film, but he also serves as a representation of an innocent thrown into a world of violence. At a time when Earth was ravaged by war, the Giant lands in a peaceful community and forms a bond with the energetic Hogarth, who rescues the robot during a dramatic incident at a power plant. As he grows closer to the boy, the Giant is eager to learn more about his new environment but often finds that he clashes with the natural order of things. Adults are completely terrified of him, and those involved with the government try to destroy or hurt him. It is, however, the love of his human companion that motivates him to do good. What I particularly love about the Giant is his childlike curiosity coupled with the fact that he barely speaks full lines of dialogue throughout the entire film. What he does say, however, is very moving and innocent. If I could choose one of Vin Diesel’s best performances, I would definitely name his role as the Iron Giant. He brings such power and dignity to the character and is able to emphasize emotions like joy, anger, guilt, and sadness with great expertise. We often forget that Diesel is a classically trained actor, and it is nice to see his talent shine here. To make a machine sound so human is a true gift.
There is no doubt that Brad Bird and his creative team channeled all their efforts into crafting The Iron Giant, and the result of their labor is a brilliantly executed story with gorgeous visuals and memorable characters. Movies of this caliber are extremely rare in American cinema and take great risks by presenting us with provocative ideas and mature themes. It is a special movie that deserves nothing but the highest praises. Twenty years after its release, it is a masterpiece, and, hopefully, it will be considered an animation landmark twenty years from now. As a child, I adored this movie. As an adult, I adore it even more.
I have never felt happier to award a rating of five stars to a movie. If I could, I would give it six, along with two thumbs up to Brad Bird and the Warner Bros. animators who did such a wonderful job bringing the film to life.
It is not only a landmark of animation, folks. It is a definitive cinematic classic.
The Iron Giant (Special Edition) is currently available on DVD.
The Iron Giant (Signature Edition Ultimate Collector's Edition) Blu-Ray will be released on September 6, 2016 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.com.