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The Iron Giant, written by Tim McCanlies from the book The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, directed by Brad Bird, 1999, 80 min.

The Iron Giant is part of an interesting and well-established trend: movies intended for children, but well written, funny and witty, visually appealing, and generally polished. The Iron Giant joins the ranks of such films as Toy Story 2, Chicken Run, and more recently Shrek and Monsters Inc. in proving that it's possible to please diverse audiences. These films also prove that film-making technique -- either computer animation, stop motion animation, or conventional animation -- can be put to the service of entertaining stories, unique stories, or just about anything else, without letting attention to technique overwhelm other aspects like story or character. That seems to be the opposite lesson of live-action science fiction movies, wherein the big-buck special effects tend to erase anything else of interest. There are exceptions of course, and I'm certainly not saying that every children's movie of today is worth seeing. The Iron Giant has its share of flaws, but on the whole it's fast-paced, entertaining, and possessed of a creative soul.

Hogarth Hughes is a young boy living in Maine in the 1950s. One day he discovers a giant robot in the woods, and happens to save the robot from electrocution at a nearby power station. A very unlikely relationship develops, especially as Hogarth realizes that it's harder to ask to keep a giant robot than a stray puppy. The Iron Giant does not speak English and does not know much about human ways, so Hogarth teaches the robot as much as he can without his mother Annie finding out what is going on. He's helped by the local beatnik/scrap dealer, who has a ready source of metal for the hungry giant, and doesn't mind if Hogarth is out late. Hogarth's difficulties at home are exacerbated by a nosy government agent, Kent Mansley, who is trying to find a giant metal object which he knows has crashed to earth somewhere in the vicinity. The main conflict of the movie develops between Mansley, convinced that the robot is a foreign weapon of some kind, and Hogarth, equally convinced that his friend is peaceable. What will the Iron Giant himself think about the two conflicting views of his nature?

Hogarth is a young boy, understandably thrilled to have such an awesome playmate. The Iron Giant eats metal, crunches lots of things, and can fly... who wouldn't want to hang out with someone like that? This movie has many parallels to E.T., both in the relationship between a boy and his alien friend, and in the mistrust of the government. Both are also somewhat pretentious, succumbing to some speechifying at certain points; even if they are both preaching tolerance and respect, the result is a bit too heavy-handed. The two movies are also very different; Hogarth and the Giant are best buddies, in a way that never happened in E.T. Also, The Iron Giant is probably more broadly played and has fewer characters. E.T. captured the flavour of its own time period, the 1980s, while The Iron Giant takes us back 40 years to the 1950s. The movie uses its atmosphere of paranoia well, and uses period detail effectively, from the opening shot of the Sputnik to the hilarious atomic safety videos (depicting children who are safe from a nuclear explosion while hiding under a desk).

The conventional animation in The Iron Giant might not be as dazzling as the computer animation in movies like Shrek or Monsters Inc., but Bird and his animators do a good job of suiting design to content. In other words, the mood produced by the visuals fits in perfectly with the story and the characters. Such a sense of balance and consistency strikes me as more important than the latest razzle dazzle.

I liked The Iron Giant and would recommend it to older children and up. It's a somewhat darker movie than I was expecting, but still an example of solid storytelling.

DVD Note: The DVD edition of this movie has a few standard items like filmographies and trailers, as well as a music video (Eddie Platt's "Cha-Hua-Hua") and a twenty minute making-of documentary. This documentary is aimed more at children, but does a decent job of taking us behind the scenes; it's taken from a TV special on WB and is hosted by Vin Diesel (the voice of the Iron Giant).


First posted: November 22, 2001; Last modified: February 26, 2004

Copyright © 2001-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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