A film review by Craig J. Koban
THE IRON GIANT
10th Anniversary Retrospective
1999, PG, 81 mins.
1999, PG, 81 mins.
Brad Bird’s THE IRON GIANT has emerged as the last, truly transcending 2D hand drawn animated film. During a relative age when studios like Disney and Dreamworks have all but abandoned traditional animation in favor of the high tech and glossy computer realm (and - most recently and most problematically - the 3D realm), films like THE IRON GIANT are largely all but extinct at the multiplexes now.
However lushly exquisite, detailed, innovative and splashy modern artists are with pixels instead of
paintbrushes, there still remains a real place of deep admiration among
film fans and animation aficionados for the type of spontaneous creativity
and vision that 2D animated films have.
People who worship the Pixar catalogue of titles forget that it was
the 2D films that preceded them that are the reason for their existence in
the first place.
History aside, THE IRON GIANT remains – aside from its aesthetic choices and techniques used – one of the finest examples of cinematic animation and storytelling over the last decade. Yes, the film certainly does look quite antiquated through contemporary eyes (which have been starved for traditional animated fare for several years), but Bird’s film still has that innocently timeless aura, perhaps attributed to the fact that the film is a joyous celebration of the freedom and ingenuity that animation has over other genres.
The artistic choices on
display here were quite bold – if not a bit of a gamble: What the 2D
hand drawn cels accomplish is to create a nice harmony with the
underlining story and themes of the film.
Upon recently watching MONSTERS
VS ALIENS – which was aggressively and inopportunely touted as
the next grand watershed for animation with its Digital 3D spectacle –
it dawned on me that all of the flashy, candy colored, and ostentatious
flair in the world could not help to compensate for a good script and
Oddly enough, THE IRON GIANT's low key and under-the-radar
artistic style allows for its narrative to breathe and simmer with a bit
more latitude and depth.
Of course, the film still looks fantastic, and is a marvel of
imagination, but the real core to the film remains its story of
If the film was presented in 3D, for example, I fear that all of its heart and soul would have been utterly and hopelessly
lost the instant I was forced to put on those glasses.
Despite the film’s overall
simplicity in design and execution, the making of the THE
IRON GIANT was anything but.
Back in the mid-to-late 1990’s Brad Bird was not a two-time Oscar
winning filmmaker, nor was he barely a blip on Hollywood’s radar.
He started in animation rather inauspiciously, serving as a
director and consultant on TV’s THE SIMPSONS and would later cut his
teeth working on THE CRITIC and KING OF THE HILL.
Around this time was when he pitched Warner Brother’s his desire
to adapt Ted Hughes' 1968 novel THE IRON MAN: A CHILDREN’S STORY IN
FIVE NIGHTS for animated silver screen treatment.
The source material itself and
its basic ideas are maintained on screen, but Bird rather judiciously
decided to use Hughes’s work as a blueprint instead of a script bible.
Often described by some as a modern fairy tale blended with the
modern trappings of science fiction, the novel concerns the unexpected
arrival of a giant metal man from the cosmos to England.
The giant mechanized behemoth lays much of the industrial farm
equipment to waste in an English countryside before he develops a highly
unlikely friendship with a local young boy.
Development for the film
adaptation began as early as 1994, but the whole project really started to
germinate with promise once Bird signed on to direct.
He then hired Tim McCanlies (who would later go on the pen many
episodes of TV’s SMALLVILLE) to work out Hughes' ambitious tale into
The script was eventually given final approval by author himself and
then the real struggle of production and promotion began, the latter being
one of the most haphazardly planned in recent movie history; more on that later.
Bird, by his own admission,
was keenly impressed with the overall mythology of Hughes' written words,
and when he expressed a desire to transplant that to the big screen,
Warner Brothers animation studio heads gave the then virginal film director
an astounding level of creative control over the project.
This can probably be best felt in seeing how Bird set the film
squarely and securely within the real life socio-political era of the
1950’s Cold War America, which still feels like a truly shrewd and daring
IRON GIANT still maintains the outer appearance of a
light, free-spirited, and family friendly entertainment (which it is to
highly agreeable levels), but by perceptively placing the film within the
framework of the rampant paranoia of McCarthyism, Bird and company
grounded this fantasy with an undercurrent of pessimism and tension,
something that far too many cutesy and cookie cutter animated films today
fail to approximate.
Sharp and intelligent viewers will, no doubt, latch themselves on to THE IRON GIANT’s political and social messages, but there is no denying that beneath all of that is a considerable amount of charm, whimsicality, and joyfulness to the story. Nuclear and Cold War terror aside, it’s clear from the onset that Bird really desired to retell the classic story of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, and the fingerprints of the that landmark 1982 film can be felt all the way through Bird’s tale.
consider the similarities:
If there were one thing that
could be negatively attributed to Bird’s film then it would be that it
does not even cloak the notion that it is a not-so-subtle E.T. copycat.
Yet, short-sided critics upon the film’s release grabbed a hold
of that overly simplistic analysis and used it to lambaste THE IRON GIANT,
but what they failed to see was that Bird’s efforts – vastly unlike
the multitude of truly wretched E.T. rip-offs that occurred in that
film’s wake – had a story ripe with poignancy that felt
palpable despite its otherworldly concepts.
The characters of the boy and “iron giant” are unavoidably
likeable and disarming, which only benefits the film’s sense of
emotionally grounding the viewers; once you buy into these troubled souls and their
plight, it’s hard to divorce yourself from them.
Only obstinate cynics will find fault with the film’s
The story itself is told with
both straightforwardness and a sense of immediacy.
It is the mid-1950’s in a bucolic American small-town, a period
that History majors,
no doubt, are aware that this was a
time of heightened Cold War tension between the United States and the
Soviet Union, which was certainly capped off by the latter country’s
launching of Sputnik in 1957, spawning the space race.
Raging anti-communism and a very perceivable threat of nuclear
Armageddon only further perpetuated America’s growing trepidation and
suspicion of all things “Red.”
The further permutation of this sense of unease against the Soviets
also saw the light of day in the popular movie culture of the time, when
stories substituted alien invasions for the Ruskies.
Bird, to his credit, does a thoroughly commendable job of capturing
the social minutia of this period: whether it be in the form of a
classroom watching one of those pathetically inane “Duck and Cover”
nuclear war films (giving advice on how to survive an Atomic
War…yeah…right!?) or in the form of the sci-film films a child within
the film watches.
After a stunningly realized
prologue set at sea, the story settles down to its working class town,
which helps to level the film’s sense of verisimilitude.
Shortly outside of the town drops a 50-foot tall robot from outer
space, which seems to have disabled its memory upon impact, giving the
‘bot a bad case of amnesia.
Back in the town lives a young boy named Hogarth (voiced pitch
perfectly by Eli Marienthal) who lives with his single, hard working,
blue-collar mother (Jennifer Aniston, given the right dosage of warmth to
her maternal figure).
Hogarth, like all only children in a single parent home, yearns for
Well, one night he gets it when he goes to investigate why his TV
antenna is missing.
Eventually, this leads him to a large power plant where he discovers
the humongous iron man from the stars, who has managed to find himself
trapped within the active transformers.
The boy, feeling sorry for the mechanical beastie, save its life
and befriends it.
The only problem with this is how he will keep his new BFF a secret from
not to mention from a X-files-ish, conspiracy-fanatical
Federal stooge named Kent Mansley (the wonderfully droll and crazed
Christopher McDonald) who is so enraptured by his hatred of the Commies
that he thinks that this robot is a Russian conspiracy to destroy America.
Much like in E.T., the
pleasure of this story is to see Hogarth revealing all of the subtle wonders
of the world to the Giant, like sight seeing, learning earthly customs and
language, and swimming, the latter getting one of the film’s many laughs
when the giant robot goes for a canon-ball dive inside a local lake and all but
drains it upon impact.
Like Elliot and his alien buddy, Hogarth even teaches the robot to
speak, albeit in largely minimalist baby talk.
The voice of the giant comes from Vin Diesel, who just may be the
only actor with the proper gravely inflections to give this odd robot some
I think that the truly great
family films are able to bridge the always treacherous and troublesome gap
between sweetness and fun with sobering, well-intentioned messages.
On the “message” level, THE IRON GIANT is a social commentary
of its troubled times, but it also even manages to engage in some
meaningful discourse regarding the nature of weapons, how one (under
certain circumstances) can be a wicked force
of death, and the nature of right and wrong.
What Hogarth and the audience initially don’t know – but later
learn – is that the robot itself has one soul purpose: it’s a
technological killing machine that instantly goes on the offensive when
provoked with violence.
Unfortunately, the giant’s amnesia gets in the way of its
programming, which has disastrous results when he goes back online during
a moment late in the film where he thinks his earthly friend has perished
(I still find it hard not to get teary eyed during this moment).
Earlier in the film the boy tries to explain to the Giant that
“you are who you chose to be”, which is driven home during one sad
moment when the Giant sees the remains of a deer that has just been shot
The Giant is capable of being one large “gun” and purveyor of
wanton destruction, but the subtle point here is that he does not have
Despite its 2D appearance, THE
IRON GIANT has still not received much praise for the generousness of its
By “generous” I am referring to the manner with which Bird gets
so many of the details just right.
Just look at Hogarth’s bedroom, which is adorned with posters of the
time (like 1956’s THE FORBIDDEN PLANET) or with the film that he watches
during one late night, THE BRAIN FROM AROUS from 1957 (an actual film).
Then there are even more discrete period references, like the issue of
Action Comics #188 that the boy shows the robot in hopes of teaching it
proper ideals of virtue and honor.
All of these little flourishes throughout THE IRON GIANT give it an
instant sense of time and place.
We feel like we are a part of this world because of our innate
familiarity with it.
The art style of the film is
also an asset, and although there are times where character designs appear
bland and undemanding, the key to remember here is that Bird is going for
a sense of atmosphere and mood; he’s not trying to overwhelm us with
“wow” moments of invention.
Most of the 2D animation carefully evokes the serenity of the
period art of Norman Rockwell and Edward Hooper: there is wholesomeness
and stark clarity to the images here.
The Giant himself, a truly memorable creation, was, in fact, the
only computer generated element in the entire film, which essentially was
born out of necessity and not artistic hubris gone amok (the animators
found the task of giving the metal man fluidity in 2D form to be quite challenging).
What’s interesting to note is that the 3D rendering was done to
evoke the feeling of hand drawn cels, giving the robot’s movements a
Regardless of techniques, the Giant remains an oddly loveable
creation despite its strangeness and, of course, gargantuan size.
The makers of the film imbued soul in it as a fully realized
creation; he’s not just a one-dimensional toy product placement ready to
be placed on a Happy Meal.
Deplorably, THE IRON GIANT was
commercially doomed right from its release date. One of the large
criticisms of Warner Brothers over the years was its startling mishandling of the
film’s promotion and advertising, not to mention release date.
GIANT was unveiled in the cinemas on August of 1999 while facing very
stiff competition in the form of THE SIXTH SENSE, which would go on to
become not only one of the biggest box office draws of the year, but an
emerging critical and cultural phenom.
The opening weekend of THE IRON GIANT netted pathetic results (only
$6 million in box office returns), which meant that, essentially, no one
was seeing the film that pundits were narrow-mindedly referring to as a commercial
Thankfully, critical response
of the time was excellent and the film received accolades in the form of
Hugo and Nebula Awards for achievements in Dramatic, Science Fiction and
Fantasy presentation respectively.
The film also became a sleeper hit when released on DVD when film
fans and animation junkies perplexingly wondered where they were during
its initial theatrical run.
Perhaps the one person who benefited the most during the disastrous
box office wake of the film was Brad Bird himself, who would later channel
his lack of success with it into a highly lucrative career directing some of
the best of the recent Pixar computer animated films, like THE
INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE.
If anything, his trifecta of these three animated films allowed him
to emerge as one of the most endowed and fiercely inspired directorial
minds working today.
Ten years after its initial theatrical release, THE IRON GIANT still remains one of the marvelous hidden gems of the movies, a miraculously entertaining and frequently touching tale of friendship that appallingly got lost in the shuffle of other high marquee releases at the time. It is one of those rare films that have benefited and been discovered by film viewers on home video, which has fortunately given Brad Bird’s intoxicating and soulful tale a much needed lease on life. Perhaps even more noteworthy was the fact that this film was one that had a involving story and something worthwhile to say about our world, which is something that is getting easily lost in the seemingly endless parade of new 3D computer animated films, which hope to sacrifice the basic elements of all good films with lots of needlessly obtrusive eye candy. The saddest legacy of THE IRON GIANT is that it seems to be the product of a bygone era.