March 16, 2017
Iron Giant, The – US, 1999
In the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed as if Hollywood was obsessed with film about aliens. Many of these films presented the aliens as enormous threats to mankind (i.e. Aliens), visitors who only intended to be on the Earth for a short time (i.e. Starman), and youth-oriented tales that depicted the greatest revelation in human history as a merry adventure involving children and their alien friends (i.e. none other than E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial itself). Few of these movies had a message for the audience beyond how quick the military could be to draw their weapons. (Explorers, with its cautionary tale about the misunderstandings that our portrayals of aliens can create, was an exception.) Some of these films have stood the test of time; others, I suspect, have suffered as their original audience has aged and is no longer as impressed by movies in which aliens are taught to see Earth through the eyes of children. I suspect that Brad Bird’s 1999 film The Iron Giant will be an example of the former.
Part of what makes Bird’s film a keeper is the fact that it is animated. This may sound silly to say, but it is much easier to accept a tale as fantastic as this one when it is presented in a form in which fantasy thrives. Animated films are a genre that has primarily focused on the tales of young people since its inception; therefore, it seems completely natural that one would focus on the budding friendship of a young boy and a robot that crashes near a small town in the countryside. Just as wisely, Bird has included a number of elements that will appeal to adults – references to Cold War paranoia, duck-and-cover educational videos, and discussions over the correct use of nuclear weapons.
At the heart of the film is Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), a spunky, curious young boy who has the kind of courage we normally see in these kinds of films. In other words, he’ll look at a path of destruction and think to himself, “I’d better go see what caused that.” And so off he goes, in the direction of smashed fences, broken trees, and half-eaten cars. It is a path that leads him to a wounded robot stuffing his mouth with steel outside a power station. Soon Hogarth’s taking it home, introducing it to comic books, and teaching it basic English.
And guess what? It works - Hogarth’s infectious energy, his budding friendship with a James Dean-look alike tellingly named Dean McCoppin (voiced by Harry Connick Jr.), the government agent who grows increasingly paranoid as the film progresses, and his mother (Jennifer Aniston), whose habit of working late allows Hogarth the opportunity to get into an adventure like this one. It worked so well that I was even willing to forgive its slightly formulaic script, and that’s saying something.
The Iron Giant was not a hit when it was initially released. However, in the years that followed, it acquired the reputation of being something quite special. In fact, the Wall Street Journal went so far as to call it an “instant classic.” While I’m not willing to go that far yet, I am ready to call it a great film with something for both young and old. It deserves its reputation and warrants not only repeat viewings but also introduction to the next generation of filmgoers. In fact, I can’t wait to show it to my own kid. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars