The Iron Giant is one of those films that seems to have had a better reception in the long run than in the short run. Released in 1999, the film had very little press and was quickly ushered out of theatres. But a stronger marketing campaign for home video, coupled with heavy airplay on Cartoon Network, led to it becoming more popular as time went on. So even though I’m coming to the film “late”, as it were, at least I’m not alone in that.
The film was directed by Brad Bird, who would later become known for directing two of Pixar’s more popular films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. This film, however, was for Warner Brothers. It is, on the surface, a story about a boy and his robot. Young Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) lives in a small town in Maine, being raised by his single mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston). He has a habit of bringing home “pets” which are stray animals or woodland creatures. The story starts when he encounters a “pet” that is just a bit more out of the ordinary.
Though if Stephen King is believed, this is pretty commonplace for Maine.
The film is set in 1957, and that era heavily influences a lot of the film, starting with the very appearance of the Iron Giant. He looks like the robots that were popular in science fiction written at that time, rather than a more modern style like one might expect from a film in the late 1990s. But it isn’t just aesthetics that are dictated by the era; the characters, plot, and moral are also influenced by it. Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), the scrapyard owner whom Hogarth befriends, is a beatnik metal artist. Kids watch “duck and cover” films in school (and the adults are largely unfooled by the pretense of safety.) And people are constantly on edge about the possibility of the Cold War turning hot. This is particularly exemplified with the government agent sent to investigate the strange happenings in Maine, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), who tries to be friendly to the townsfolk but is deeply suspicious of any unexplained phenomena.
He was always a little upset after they canceled his late night talk show.
There’s a bit of Bambi syndrome in the movie’s moralizing, and the transition from “A boy and his ‘bot” to taking a moral standpoint is a bit abrupt and jarring. But though it transitions quickly (and with only a little over an hour of actual film time, it kind of has to), the general motif of Cold War paranoia is very appropriate to the setting. The seam between happy-go-lucky comedic fun and lesson about the dangers of paranoia may be a little rough, but both halves of the movie are very well done.
A lot of this has to do with the writing and the voice acting. Hogarth is voiced by Eli Marienthal, only 13 years old at the time, and his character is written as a very believable young boy. He’s prone to rash actions and to blurting out sentences at random. Vin Diesel is the voice actor for the nearly monosyllabic Iron Giant, and manages to capture a lot of emotional nuance in a few words. Jennifer Aniston may not have as much to do as Hogarth’s mother, but she turns in a decent performance. Harry Connick Jr. and Christopher McDonald may be the standouts, here, as each of them gets to show a bit of a range as their characters, especially McDonald as Mansley. And John Mahoney also turns in a nice subtle performance as Mansley’s gruff (and long-suffering) boss.
Visually, this film is unusually well done. The animation is computer-aided in places, but it’s only occasionally noticeable (most noticeably when water is animated). Most particularly, the Iron Giant himself, though computer-drawn, looks like a natural part of the scenes he’s in. There’s also an attention to detail, and particularly to imperfections. There are no perfect faces here, and the Iron Giant has dents in him. Cars aren’t showroom perfect, and older buildings have a bit of a rundown look to them. And in nighttime scenes, areas that aren’t illuminated are given less intense colors in addition to being darker, making it look a lot more believable.
For a kid who watches a lot of B-grade horror movies, he sure doesn’t have any qualms about going into a dark forest alone.
The Iron Giant is a fun, well-crafted film that should be enjoyable by both children and adults. Kids will enjoy Hogarth’s manic antics, and adults will appreciate the fact that its darker overtones aren’t glossed over. If you’re one of those people for whom the film flew under the radar, it’s worth taking the time to check it out.