The Iron Giant
Screenplay : Tim McCanlies (screen story by Brad Bird, based on the novel "The Iron Man" by Ted Hughes)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1999
Forget that awful advertising campaign that tries to be an homage to 1950s comic books, but makes the movie look like an imported animated cheapie with no plot and dubbed dialogue ("It came from OUTER SPACE!"). The truth is, "The Iron Giant" is a surprisingly smart, thoroughly entertaining animated fable that actually makes you think. It is also solid in the technical departments, with beautiful backgrounds, just a touch of digital wizardry, and expressional characters; it's one of the few recent non-Disney animated films that doesn't look like it's trying to ape Disney's style.
The story is about a young boy named Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal) who befriends a 100-foot metal robot that crash-lands on earth during the Cold War-crazed late 1950s. Hogarth lives in a small town in rural Maine, and it is in the surrounding forests that the towering, metal-eating visitor hides, something like a lost child. With the help of a beatnik artist/scrap yard worker named Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), Hogarth tries to protect his new friend, but it is all to no avail.
"The Iron Giant" has a certain sense of sad inevitability, and once the determined (and often comical) government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) arrives on the scene (he's sort of like an anal, unlikable precursor to "The X-Files" Agent Mulder) to investigate rumors of a giant metal monster, it is only a matter of time before the army arrives and begins trying to blast the peaceful giant to kingdom come. With fear and paranoia cranked up to bursting levels by the stress of the "war" on communism and the fear of nuclear war, the giant represents everything the government fears, and therefore wants to destroy.
One of the lessons the movie has to offer is the idea of communicating before attacking, which is not what Kent wants to do. All he is knows is that the Iron Giant was not made in the U.S., and, for him, that is reason enough to destroy it. Hogarth knows the giant is peaceful, but the movie points out the weakness of one rational voice in a sea of armed paranoia. The catch is that the Iron Giant is also a powerful weapon who responds defensively when attacked, and the movie is smart and gentle enough to give him a conscience and show him resisting his programmed reactions to fight back.
Director Brad Bird (previously an executive consultant on "The Simpsons" and "King of the Kill") and screenwriter Tim McCanlies (working from a screen story by Bird, derived from a book by poet Ted Hughes) do a fine job of telling a good story with no unnecessary flourishes (read: pointless Disneyish musical numbers) and creating memorable, three-dimensional characters within the animated realm. Hogarth is a likable, adveturesome boy, and his home life with his single mother (Jennifer Aniston) is realistic and poignant. Strangely enough, this turns the Iron Giant into something of a father figure as well as a friend.
I was reminded of the scene in James Cameron's "Terminator 2" (1991) when Linda Hamilton notes in her voice-over narration the ironic appropriateness that Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, a killing machine in conception, turned out to be the best father figure for her son because he was programmed to protect the boy, and therefore would never hit him or yell at him, and would die protecting him. The Iron Giant fills a similar hole in young Hogarth's life, and it is a sad lesson to all of us, especially in today's increasingly violent world, that this metal visitor who looks so threatening, turns out to more humane--and more human--than many of the people he encounters.
©1999 James Kendrick