REVIEW – The Iron Giant
Directed by: Brad Bird
Produced by: Allison Abbate, Des McAnuff
Screenplay by: Tim McCanlies
Story by: Brad Bird
Edited by: Darren T. Holmes
Cinematography by: Steven Wilzbach
Music by: Michael Kamen
Starring: Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Aniston, Christopher McDonald, John Mahoney, Vin Diesel, James Gammon, M. Emmet Walsh, Cloris Leachman
Based on the novel The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
Disney may have reigned at the box office in the 1990s, but by the end of the decade, the quality of their non-Pixar-produced films was undoubtedly beginning to slip, and so it’s no real wonder that other studios – particularly DreamWorks – were taking notice and trying to take a bite out of their share of the box office. Despite having the backing of a major studio behind it, however, Warner Bros. Animation struggled to find its footing with theatrical releases during this era. Space Jam, the studio’s first in-house feature film production, was a considerable success, but it relied upon familiar Looney Tunes characters and Michael Jordan (and an already existing and popular advertising campaign for shoes that already merged the two brands) to basically have the film market itself. Later films wouldn’t be able to use that crutch, however, and anemic advertising strategies for films like Quest for Camelot, Osmosis Jones, and even Looney Tunes: Back in Action – which no longer had the brand popularity and the basketball star to rely upon – did little to drum up ticket sales, and none of the films achieved the critical acclaim to even make them legit cult classics. There was, of course, one film released in between all this, however, that, despite the botched advertising (some of which, for some reason, used Scorpion’s “Rock You Like a Hurricane”) and underperformance, did manage to eventually make a name for itself not just as a cult classic, but as truly one of the most underappreciated animated film classics.
The Iron Giant was the feature film directorial debut for Brad Bird – an alum of the Golden Age of The Simpsons and future director of The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – and, despite numerous setbacks and troubles behind the scenes, including a reduced budget compared to its peers, it was the only WBA film from the era to achieve actual critical acclaim in its time, sitting today with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96% – well above their next highest film, Back in Action, which sits at 57% – and winning nine out of its fifteen Annie Award nominations, including Best Animated Feature Film, another for Brad Bird’s direction, and another for writing. While the film did not meet financial expectations at the theatres, it did find new life on home video and was even re-released to theatres for a brief period of time, complete with a couple of newly completed additional scenes that, though brief, genuinely add to the story of an already excellent film.
Taking inspiration from the acclaimed 1968 novel The Iron Man by Ted Hughes (renamed The Iron Giant in America to avoid confusion with the Marvel Comics property), The Iron Giant tells the story about a young boy named Hogarth Hughes, who is growing up during a particularly paranoid timeframe in the Cold War, 1957 – the same year the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit. Living with a single mother, who takes on extra hours when she can, Hogarth spends much of his time alone, absorbing sci-fi movies and comics when he’s not running around on adventures in his small hometown of Rockwell, Maine. Naturally, when rumors of a monster from space begin to spread around town, his imagination is enraptured at the possibilities of what it may be. A Soviet weapon? Invaders from Mars? Or just some old man’s delusions? To a kid with not much to do outside of homework and dream, anything is going to be pretty exciting – except for maybe that last one.
Naturally, we know what it is ‘cause it’s in the movie’s title. The bond that’s formed between Hogarth and the Iron Giant is pretty much what you’d expect from a the movie’s E.T.-esque setup in terms of how the film plays out, but even though it’s a familiar premise, that doesn’t keep the movie from greatness. It’s all in the execution and characterization. Of course, most people will focus most on the Giant. Animated fluidly with seamless CGI graphics and possessing a limited vocabulary (courtesy of the appropriately iron-voiced Vin Diesel), and possessing the gentle curiosity and sense of adventure of a human child, the Giant somehow comes off as cuddly, despite being made of metal, but not in a way that makes him overly cute, either. He’s every kid’s dream companion, but in many ways is pretty much a child, too, making his friendship with Hogarth one that’s as much based in mundane friendship as it is the extraordinary nature of one of the friends. The film doesn’t present us with too much exposition about the Giant’s origins (even the extended version only provides a few more concrete answers), but, as Hogarth explains, what’s most important is what he does to make the world better that makes him great – “You are who you choose to be” – making the film a surprisingly great, accessible contemplation of the good that someone can do, rather than focusing on their potential for destruction.
Naturally, the bond between the Giant and the kid is essential to the movie’s charms, and if the kid himself weren’t charming, then you’d have a pretty lopsided film with lots of unfulfilled potential. Movies like this, particularly during the 90s, could easily let their human heroes become a bland every-child proxy for kids in the audience, but Hogarth is himself a likable, entertaining character with a lively, interesting personality while still being recognizable as a genuine kid – not some writer’s cynical idea of what they think kids are like. There’s no sassy attitude. He’s neither perfect angel nor undeserving brat, and he’s even a bit of a goofball who believes he’s cooler than and is oftentimes far more confident than he is competent. In other words, he’s an actual kid, which makes him pretty believable and endearing, even with a giant metal man hanging around. It helps that actual kid (at the time) Eli Marienthal is a natural in the role, too, knowing how to deliver lines both sincere, heartfelt and even providing a lot of the film’s comedy, too.
A lot of this, of course, also has to do with the top-notch writing and direction from Tim McCanlies and Brad Bird, respectively. It’s obvious that Brad Bird hails from the golden era of The Simpsons, as his film delivers both the laughs and the intimate and profound moments that made those episodes from that era so renowned, even today and which would continue in the films he made for Pixar later on. The traditional animation is also fantastic (except for maybe the newly animated Signature Edition scenes, which are noticeably different looking thanks to the time gap, but that is easily forgiven since both versions are available, and they’re still interesting enough without being revolutionary, either). There’s great work in characters’ expressivity, and there are even unique designs for briefly seen background characters, all on a relatively tight budget.
Supporting cast members are also great. Jennifer Aniston, still in the midst of her Friends career at the time as the self-centered Rachel, disappears into her role as the warm but weary and altogether un-Rachel-like mother character, and Harry Connick, Jr. is also perfectly cast as Dean, a beatnik junkyard artist and outsider who empathizes with Hogarth and the giant – if not necessarily due to their heartwarming friendship, then at the very least because they’re all in it against the government watchdogs, Kent Mansley in particular (played by an amusingly neurotic Christopher McDonald, who is also great).
If there’s any one flaw I can think of, beyond some of the minor technological limitations of the film for budgetary reasons, it’s that the film is a bit heavy handed and simplistic in addressing the nature of death and destruction in one key scene. It could easily be argued that it’s supposed to be in order to more clearly illustrate to children what can happen if one chooses to be destructive and draw out appropriate emotions, but the way that the movie draws a comparison from that moment to the Cold War setting and war doesn’t strike me as fair nor logical. The discussions regarding life and death are potent and valuable, however, and this is ultimately a single misguided moment amidst an ultimately valuable message about the choice we can make to do what’s good.
The Iron Giant is one of the few non-Disney/Pixar productions that can live up to the gold standards set by them for producing some of the most well-made, entertaining, and heartfelt masterpieces without becoming pandering to its target audience of children at the sacrifice of their parents’ mental states. There aren’t any goofy, gibberish-speaking sidekicks, and the characters are well-defined and nuanced beyond their most simplistic qualities and “hip” catchphrases. This was a film that deserved so much better upon release, though it has at least finally amassed a big enough following that it’s unlikely to ever be forgotten, as has been the case with some of even Pixar’s own films over the past couple years. That’s good news for everyone, as it means that, even though it took far too long for The Iron Giant to get a proper Blu-Ray release, we can all breathe a sigh of relief knowing that future generations will likely continue to be introduced to and be moved by this wonderful story about a boy and his giant metal friend.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5