In honor of the new Blu-ray release of Brad Bird's The Iron Giant, I thought I'd share my thoughts on what many consider to be one of the greatest animated buried treasures of all time. In the '90s, Disney was at their peak, producing hit after hit after hit. They teamed up with Pixar to produce fully computer-animated films like Toy Story and A Bug's Life. By 1999, the industry was jam-packed with quality animation from both studios, and a few solid hits from Dreamworks, but the once proud Warner Bros. was waning badly. They needed a hit to keep their animation department alive, but they sure as hell didn't get it with The Iron Giant. The movie bombed at the box office, but was a huge hit critically, with Roger Ebert comparing it to the works of Hayao Miyazaki. It's since found a highly-devoted cult fan base, most of whom discovered the film on VHS years after its release.
Then suddenly... without warning... ATOMIC HOLOCAUST
Fair warning, but I'm about to sound like a total hipster; I was one of the few kids that actually saw this in theaters. But it wasn't because I wanted to; in fact, I was extremely disappointed that Inspector Gadget was sold out on the weekend my parents took me to see it, and we settled for the only other family movie playing in the theater. I wasn't disappointed for too long; The Iron Giant engrossed me so fully that by the thrilling climax I couldn't care less what Matthew Broderick and his springy feet were up to. I've been a fan ever since, and probably love the film more now than when I was nine. The Cold War themes, the funny and endearing characters, and the charming-as-hell animation all come together to form a movie with so much soul. To have a film with any soul come from the same studio that brought us the shamefully derivative Quest for Camelot only a year prior is downright incredible.
I go. You stay. No following.
The story follows Hogarth Hughes, a boy growing up in the town of Rockwell, Maine during the late 1950s; a time when Cold War paranoia was at its peak after the launch of Sputnik. In the midst of feeling alone, between his working single mother and the bullies at school, Hogarth discovers a gigantic, metal robot in the woods. The giant seems to be suffering memory loss, without a clue who he is or what his purpose in coming to Earth was. So he follows Hogarth like a child, learning about the world and how it works with great enthusiasm as he hunts for metal to eat. Hogarth realizes that he can't keep the giant in his tool shed for long, so he hides him at a local junkyard with a beatnik artist named Dean, who isn't jazzed about the idea but warms up to the giant after a while. All the while, the paranoid government agent Kent Mansley searches for the giant's whereabouts so that he can destroy it all all costs.
Souls don't die
While its story may owe a lot to Spielberg's E.T. at first glance, there's powerful depth to be found in The Iron Giant that makes all of its similarities forgivable. I think the movie can be summed up in a scene where Hogarth consoles the grieving giant after they witness a deer being shot by a hunter in the woods. As the scene plays out, and you realize that you're watching a little boy try to explain the concept of souls to an alien robot, the movie has proven that it's something special. It's handled delicately, but direct enough that you surely won't find anything like it in another American animated adventure. So many moments like that are littered throughout the film; moments where characters connect, where genuine drama is felt, and where outstanding humor has time to shine. There's some refreshing edge to be found here too; the occasional "damn" and "hell" give us the impression that the characters don't live in a safe, kid-friendly world, and I love the movie all the more for it.
You can fly?!
The Iron Giant looks fantastic as well. I've always loved the look of Warner Bros. feature animation, with its warm, appealing character designs (that tend to have very round eyes) and fluid animation that looks just below the standard caliber for Disney movies, yet retains immense charm. The movie practically embodies the season of autumn, save for the snowy climax. One thing Warner certainly had over other studios in 1999 was the ability to blend hand-drawn animation with CGI elements, and this is demonstrated no better than by the giant himself. The way he blends with the elements around him is truly something of an achievement. Not only is it not distracting that he's a CGI character, his design is crafted so he can express himself the way he needs to without breaking that design at all (in stark contrast to B.E.N. in Treasure Planet, a horribly-animated character that floats above the hand-drawn elements like he's in another dimension entirely. And that movie came out four years later!). It's a shame that the animation department had to shut down due to their films' repeated failures, but at least they gave us this gem before they did.
He's a weapon... a big gun that walks
The voice work is spot-on as well. Eli Marienthol holds everything together as Hogarth, thanks (I'm sure) in part to Brad Bird's steady direction. The script is full of emotion, comedy, and drama, and the cast (including Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., and Christopher MacDonald) captures it all with great enthusiasm. The score is great; Michael Kamen (who scored the next year's X-Men) composes a whimsical soundtrack that evokes childhood, discovery, and wonder, which couldn't match the film more perfectly. My favorite moment of scoring-meets-voice-acting has to come at the film's climax, when the score swells and Vin Diesel (as the giant) slowly utters "Superman." I'm not crying... it's allergies...
You are who you chose to be
The Iron Giant is a triumph, with great animation, resonant themes, and acts as a 50s nostalgia piece while also criticizing the era. But what makes it one of the best animated movies of all time is its story and characters, both of which have clearly been given the utmost care and attention. Having seen the Signature Edition (in theaters and on Blu-ray) with about two minutes of additional animation, I'm not exactly floored. One scene builds up the relationship between Dean and Hogarth's mother a bit, and the other foreshadows the giant's destructive power. The animation syncs nicely with the rest of the movie, but it's not required viewing. Brad Bird is one of my favorite writer/directors working today (he also directed my favorite Pixar movie, Ratatouille), because he makes sure that beneath the frame of his movies there lies a beating heart. He's expressed interest in doing another hand-drawn feature film, but I'll believe it when I see it. And my God, do I want to see it.