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Iron Giant, The (1999)

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 film's 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.

If I could choose one point in particular, I would say the strongest element of the story is the relationships between the characters. At the heart of the film is the strong friendship shared by Hogarth and the Giant, who become such close companions that it is easy to forget that one of them is a robot. As they grow closer, Hogarth not only teaches his new friend about the culture of his world but also introduces him to the dangers of violence and warfare. There is even one point in the film where the two of them discuss death and the concept of the soul, very provocative and deep elements for a children’s movie. And I especially adore their comedic scenes together, when Hogarth tries to hide the giant from his mother, his friends, the snooping government agent, and even the military.

Another strong point of this classic E.T. retelling is the relationship between Hogarth and the secondary characters. Hogarth and Annie are the typical single mother/son unit, but what makes them special is their strong love and respect for each other. Hijinks ensue whenever Hogarth comes across the beatnik Dean McCoppin, who the boy entrusts with watching over the giant at one point in the film, but their shared moments of calmer dialogue introduce us to themes of independence and individuality. I will also be the first to admit that, while forced at times, I do like the relationship between Hogarth and Kent Mansley, which can border between over-the-top hilarious and completely terrifying and sadistic. Throughout the movie, there are also interactions between other characters, but it is the bond between these secondary characters that reinforces the friendship of Hogarth and the Iron Giant and moves the plot along at a steady and energetic pace.

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 NausicaƤ: 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 underlying conflict of emotions is emphasized by the atmosphere of the film. In the 1950s, the world was in a panic as new weapons were being created for a new type of warfare. Americans were terrified of an imminent Russian attack or a potential atomic holocaust, and the artistic directors took great care in establishing this sensation of terror by intermixing it with dry wit and energetic comedy to relax the harshness of reality. This is something I respect about the film. I am not sure if it can be considered a war movie. Instead, I see it as a wartime movie. It is told from the point of view of characters who are isolated in a small town and who have not experienced the horrors that are slicing through the world.

One particularly great example of Cold War themes is the “Duck and Cover” cartoon that Hogarth and his classmates are watching in the first act of the film. This short film is a representative of war propaganda children had to watch during this time period to incite awareness of nuclear bomb threats. What makes this scene funny is the fact that none of the children are really paying attention to the message of the movie and are instead discussing their views of the strange phenomenon (i.e. the crash landing of the robot) in their town. Even Hogarth is doodling pictures of the Giant in his school journal and is oblivious to the animation of alien machines in the short film. With that put aside, however, the “Duck and Cover” sequence is also a unique twist on cartoons produced in the 1950s, which once again adds to the feel of the Cold War era. Presented completely in black and white, it is drawn with a rigid, simple style that reminds me of Hanna-Barbara’s first television programs.

However, the driving force of the film is the cast of unique characters. Not only are they visually appealing but they are also very relatable and surprisingly realistic.

Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) is the embodiment of an adventurous child, and he is an absolute delight to watch. With his huge ears, gangly frame, and toothy smile, he represents the awkward youth in all of us, but also gives us a clear picture of a child who has been forced to take on the responsibilities of an adult. After the presumed death of his father, Hogarth has grown into an independent young man who is not really afraid of anything. What I especially like about this character is his maturity and spunk. There are few child characters that possess the intelligence of Hogarth Hughes. At times, he acts like a typical 9-year-old boy, reading science fiction comic books, wielding a BB gun, and pulling devious pranks on grown-ups. Yet there are times when Hogarth acts surprisingly mature for his age, and this part of him grows after he meets the Giant. Once he is given the responsibility of looking after his new friend, Hogarth becomes a big brother figure who advises the childlike robot about the ways of the world and the rules of the universe. Once again, I must refer to the conversation the two have about life and death and spirituality. To hear a child speak like this is not only surprising, but it is also very moving. And I think it is safe to say that Hogarth might possibly be my favorite child character in any animated production, or any film overall.

Dean McCoppin (voiced by Harry Connick, Jr.) is just a great character all the way around and is a perfect example of an adult who is unwillingly thrown into a crazy situation. The opposite of wartime advocates, Dean is a suave, smooth-talking beatnik who operates the local junkyard McCoppin Scrap, which he uses as a source for his bizarre, otherworldly sculptures. Apart from being artistic, Dean is witty and funny and delivers some really impressive dialogue. Most of his scenes involve his interactions with Hogarth and the Giant, and these are examples of pure comedic gold. One of my favorite scenes is when Dean corners the Giant about eating a metal sculpture and shouts, “What you currently have...IN YOUR MOUTH...IS ART!” His expression and the ensuing reaction to the Giant’s statement is absolutely priceless. Though he is played for comedy at times, Dean does take on a more serious role near the end of the film when he tries to stop the military from destroying the robot. He also delivers the most powerful line of dialogue in the movie, “You are who you choose to be.”

And need we forget the Jerry Lewis, Perry Mason wannabe government agent? Kent Mansley (voiced by Christopher McDonald) switches between a dignified officer and a psychotic nutball so quickly that I sometimes wonder if he was one of Chuck Jones’ missing characters from the Looney Tunes franchise. And, since The Iron Giant is a Warner Bros. production, you have to wonder if this could be true. He is the perfect example of the paranoia of the Cold War era, and, in a way, this allows you to sympathize with him. People were scared during this time, fearful of things they did not understand. When he is called to Rockwell to investigate the Giant’s attack on the power plant, Kent is at first disbelieving of the situation and disregards it as a local hoax. Once he discovers that the “enormous beast” is real, however, he snowballs into a tirade of insanity, fear, and hyperactivity. As usual, McDonald delivers a delightful performance as an egotistical narcissist and provides some really snappy comedy. I love it when he discovers the words “Hog, Hug” on the side of the BB gun and realizes that Hogarth was a witness at the power plant. Comedy at its best folks! Comedy at its best.

While she is not in the movie for very long, Annie Hughes (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) is still a great character. For me, however, she is not your typical doting mother. Having lost her husband, Annie has to work twice as hard to support herself and her son and is a fiery, determined young woman who is very protective and stern. When she fears her son is in danger, she is quick to leap into action, and Annie is definitely not a fool. As Hogarth and Dean try to hide the Giant from her, you get the feeling that Annie knows a lot more than she is letting on. Aniston’s performance is also top-notch and adds just the right mix of boldness and determination.

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