The Iron Giant
A Touching Family Film And the First Real Challenge to Disney's Animation Dominance
Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels
The other movie studios have been trying with little success to challenge Disneys animation crown. The problem is they kept trying to beat Disney at its own game by producing fairy tale (or fairy tale-like) animated musicals with cute animal sidekicks. Besides being repetitive, they also forgot that Disney itself has sometimes stumbled with that formula. Finally, Warner Bros. went in a different direction with The Iron Giant, and it works.
The Iron Giant has an interesting pedigree. Based on The Iron Man, the story was written by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes to help his children cope with the death of their mother, poet Sylvia Plath. It was made into a concept album and British stage show by Pete Townsend of The Who. Screenwriter Tim McCanlies and director Brad Bird changed the setting to 1950s Maine and use it to address human fear of the unknown.
Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) is an imaginative little boy who lives with his mother Annie (voice of Jennifer Aniston). With the town nervous about the recent Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, Hogarth investigates a fishermans claim that he saw a giant metal man crash into the sea near Rockwell, Maine. What he finds is a giant iron robot who eats metal and is as gentle as he is big. The two become fast friends, and Hogarth convinces Beatnik artist and junkyard operator Dean (voice of Harry Connick Jr.) to hide the giant.
But this being the Fifties, paranoia is rampant and government investigator Kent Mansley (voice of Christopher McDonald) not only comes to believe in the giant, but that hes dangerous. Before long, Mansley will do everything in his powerlegal and otherwiseto destroy the giant to "protect" the country.
The Iron Giant is more of an animated fable than a fairy tale and there isnt a song or cute animal sidekick in sight, though there is one Bambi-like sequence that enables Hogarth to teach the giant about the difference between killing and dying ("Killing is bad. Dying isnt. Everybody dies sometime," he explains). Dean is also a fresh character for animation. Would Disney have included an espresso-drinking, jazz-listening Beat artist in one of its films? I dont think so.
The kids I saw it with loved The Iron Giant (the audience applauded when the film was over), but it might be a touch too serious in places for the littlest tykes and will probably (hopefully!) provoke discussion with slightly older ones about violence versus defensive action. While I anticipate the NRA will be annoyed by the film (when the giants automatic defense systems kick in the first time, Hogarth tells him, "Youre not a gun. You can be whatever you choose."), among its anti-violence messages is the idea that the fault lies in how a tool is used rather than in the tool itself. The film also has a nice message about not judging people by their appearance.
I found the Superman references to be an amusing in-house plug at first (Time-Warner owns both Warner Bros. Films and DC Comics), but as the film progresses, the Superman references become more appropriate and poignant.
The animation is lovely. While certain computer animation techniques were used to synthesize "camera movements" and the like, the film looks like old-fashioned, two-dimensional animation, which only reinforces its 1950s rural Maine setting.
The Iron Giant deserves to be and probably will be a classic. Believable characters, a heart-tugging story and morals that turned out to be more timely than anyone could have expected, all combine to make a sweet and entertaining family film. And Disney? In case youre wondering, that thumping you hear is the competition catching up with you.
(A Warner Bros. release. Directed by Brad Byrd.)
Review © 1999 Beth Hannan Rimmels. Accompanying stills © 1999 Warner Bros.