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The Iron Giant

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 6 August 1999

Iron Giant   Directed by Brad Bird

Starring Jennifer Aniston,
Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick Jr.,
Vin Diesel, Christopher McDonald,
James Gammon, Cloris Leachman,
John Mahoney and M. Emmet Walsh

 Written by Tim McCanlies and Brad Bird
based on the book The Iron Man
by Ted Hughes

"I’m the luckiest kid in the world," cheers adolescent Hogarth, halfway to sci-fi heaven in the hand of a friendly ten story robot -- a clanking metal man who acts like a combination little brother, big brother and playful puppy dog all rolled into one magnificent structure who looks like he stepped off the cover of "Amazing Stories" -- as they march through the forest of his rural coastal Maine town in search of scrap metal. The giddiest moments of The Iron Giant deliver the most amazing little-boy wish fulfillment fantasies: the kid with his own playmate robot. But there’s much more to Brad Bird’s adaptation of the Ted Hughes novel "The Iron Man." Using the rich conflicts inherent in the setting of 1957, he twines nostalgic simplicity and rural serenity with cold war paranoia and space age fears (this is the height of Sputnik-mania and the Russian eye-in-the-sky has American terrified to attack from space) and injects it with the (now) retro look of 1950s futurism and (then) mix of wild and mellow beatnik cool.

The Iron Giant is a fable in science fiction clothing and fairy tale trappings, but it begins with portends of doom. A tiny boat is tossed on a stormy sea like a toy in a bathtub when something crashes into the water, like a meteor. The aging captain searches for the lighthouse beacon and thinks he sees it, but as he steers toward the ray his ship is crushed by a huge metallic object. Thrown from his boat the old salt sees what is surely a creature from outer space (if not a super secret Soviet experimental weapon, perhaps the real story behind Sputnik?), a hulking gray behemoth with foglight eyes. Of course no one believes him. No one except Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal), the imaginative only child of a single mom, and Annie Hughes (Jennifer Aniston), the harried and overworked but sensitive and sweet young waitress at a local diner.

Hogarth is a freckle-faced, rambunctious boy whose knack for finding pets is only topped by his ability to lose them in the most inopportune places. This time his newest foundling, a squirrel, escapes and scurries about the diner when he overhears the story and meets up with Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), an easy-going beatnik in basic black who chimes in to defend the old man. Dean is instantly identified as an okay guy when he keeps Hogarth’s secret about the escaped squirrel even as it crawls up his pant leg (which leads to the film’s first genuinely bizarre moment, involving public disrobing to the THX-enhanced sound of a zipper -- trust me, it’s no Farrelly Brothers moment, but it manages to combine juvenile farce with adult surrealism in a truly unique way).

Hogarth is left on his own as Mom has to work late once again, so of course he’s up late with junk food and junkier science fiction movies on the late show (an endearingly wooden recreation of B movies with shadowing B&W animation), but when the reception suddenly frizzes out during the climax he climbs up on the roof and finds the aerial has been eaten and the reverberations of the culprit are shaking through the forest. Soon it’s Commando Hogarth off to investigate, equipped with space helmet and BB gun. He’s not at all prepared for what happens next: a square-jawed mechanical man the size of a six story building leaps out and attacks the power station. Well, not exactly. Hogarth realizes that he’s not attacking as much as foraging -- he eats metal -- but he becomes tangled in the wires start to fry with high voltage current (the sound sputters and buzzes like a small electrical storm). Terrified, Hogarth runs off, but he can’t let the creature, no matter how scary, die. Not when he has the power to save him.

He has no idea that his simple act of courage is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. When his mother finds him, she’s simply "not in the mood" for his tall tales of comic book monsters, so he decides to get proof the next night. He stakes out a likely meadow and puts out a lure -- a rather small chunk of scrap metal -- to catch the thing on film. But the iron giant wants to make friends with Hogarth and after scaring the bejesus out of the boy (quite by accident, mind you) he embarks on a friendly game of monkey see, monkey so. Before you know it, Hogarth is teaching his friendly giant how to talk, lending him comic books (from "Atomo the Metal Menace" to "Superman." Hogarth has discovered his new role model. With his head cocked like a puppy and big, dumb smile emerging from his hinged jaw and pale white eyes, he repeats the words "Sooper-man."

Meanwhile Agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), a tall, angular fellow who looks serious, supercilious, and silly all at the same time, comes to investigate the rather outrageous claims. This self-important bureaucratic boob has obviously been given a chump assignment, and you get the feeling this guy is regularly relegated to dealing with all the nuisance calls. Disdainful of everyone, convinced he’s out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by provincials, his plan is simply to file his report and get back to civilization when his own car is eaten. Suddenly he’s possessed, checking out every half -eaten vehicle and farm implement (not to mention a power station bent, eaten, and torn out of shape), until he finally makes a connection between Hogarth and half-obscured words on the bent BB gun discovered at the power station. Hogarth becomes the key to his investigation and while the boy is scurrying to hide his pal, Manley is dogging his steps. Like a truly devious kid he resorts to devious bathroom humor to make his escape and see his pal, safely hidden in Dean’s junk yard. The three of them become an exclusive little club, playing, swimming, making art out of the junk in the scarpyard (okay, just Dean and the now excitedly creative robot, giddy with the discovery of his own ability to make art).

Like most children’s stories this follows a fairly simple, straightforward plot, but that’s not to suggest it’s simplistic. Bird quite beautifully combines the utopia of summer fun and unconditional friendship, a child’s paradise of innocence and trust, with the fall from grace represented by Manley, the paranoid government agent who sees conspiracies, invasions, and America’s compromised security with every piece of evidence. Manley’s fears are easy to understand -- the launching of Sputnik heated up the cold war with a fire that finally raged into Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis -- but as the film progresses he turns from comic foil to power-mad fascist, no one-dimensional cartoon villain but an all-too-scary patriot transformed into a fear-driven zealot. In his zeal to save America from forces beyond his understanding he threatens Hogarth with some really scary grown-up meanness: "I can do anything I want, whenever I want. If I think it’s in the people’s interest," he smirks as he threatens to take Hogarth from his mom and put him in an orphanage -- if he doesn’t tell where the robot is.

His fears are confirmed in one respect only: Hogarth has no idea what the Iron Giant really is. In fact, neither does the giant himself. The little dent on his metal skull seems to have left him without any sense of identity -- he doesn’t realize how strong he is or know what powers he possesses, but he discovers a love of nature, a zeal for friendship, a knack for playing, a passion for imagination… he’s a big kid who wants to be a superhero. But when he sees a deer killed by hunters a second personality emerges -- for brief seconds -- that turns his eyes fiery red and his temperament vengeful. Like a split personality, it returns later while playing with Hogarth and the Iron Giant’s true origins are revealed in a scary, destructive explosion of weaponry.

Warner has struck out twice in attempting to break Disney’s monopoly of must-see animation. I haven’t seen all of either of their first two films, but the moments I’ve glimpsed of Quest For Camelot from my niece’s tape looks awfully derivative and dull, and truly wretched clips I glimpsed in the trailers for The King and I made that mundane animation look brilliant by contrast. The Iron Giant takes a different tack. It doesn’t look like any recent animated film, except possibly the sleek, stylized look of the Batman TV series and feature film, and eschews the fluidity and detail of Disney’s house style for a look built on the strong lines and simple designs, sort of a cross between a 1950s comic book and the animation of a 1950s TV ad. The look is enhanced by excellent sound design. Most animated features sound good -- they must to give weight and presence to the animated figures up there -- but this is better than most, creating fantastic sounds to match the glorious possibilities of what’s up on the screen: booming crashes, flying whooshes, sputtering electricity, screeching metal, all cranked up to levels of THX thunder that echoes through the auditorium.

All this would be mere doodling if not for a resonant story, and that’s the heart of The Iron Giant. "You are what you choose to be," insists Dean as Hogarth, a kind of loner, explains how everyone at school thinks he’s too small, too weird. Hogarth discovers the truth of that when confronted with the violent second nature of the Iron Giant, a destructive, unthinking malevolence completely at odds with the cheery, fun loving, boyish best friend Hogarth has come to know and love. Bird gives that moral true dimension when the Iron Giant risks all to prove his true nature -- the nature he wants, not one that’s been imposed by programming -- in a climax of chilling, quiet apocalyptic terror that is sure to affect adults with its subdued hush more than children.

I sat next to a kid, probably about five, and his Mom when I saw the film. The kid was into it by the opening credits, simple titles that nonetheless overwhelmed the screen with their monstrous size. He repeated to himself "Oh no, oh no, oh no" like a mantra in a mixture of excitement and dread. Like most kids he chattered with his mom, who shushed him politely but firmly, until he became so caught up in the film that he stopped tossing off random thoughts and started engaging the film with smart questions. His innocence enchanted me -- at the end, when Manley spins lies to the General in order to push his own paranoid, hateful agenda of destruction, the kid turned to his mom genuinely upset with this character’s lies (too innocent to be outraged) fishing for some answer as to exactly WHY he’s spinning such hurtful fabrications. I knew then that the film was really working.

I think The Iron Giant is well on its way to being a modern classic, a charming fantasy with a moral that grows from within the heart of the film. For kids, it’s a simple tale of how hate and fear are destructive forces and can spin out of control. For adults it uses the giddy story of a boy and his robot for a fun house mirror look at the cold war and the politics of fear. But for everyone open to it, the story is about friendship, about love, and about taking control of your own destiny. In the climactic scene, as the Iron Giant repeats to himself his role model, "Superman," in a hushed voice of self-realization, I found myself taken in completely by the film. Perhaps it unlocked the kid inside of me

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