The Iron Giant (1999)

Posted by on Dec 22, 2011 in Out of This World | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Depicts evil government agents more dangerous to United States’ national security than those sneaky Russians.

If Bill Watterson’s comic strip kid Calvin, and his alter-ego Spaceman Spiff, unearthed a giant robot from outer space, the result would be something like this fantastic film based on Ted Hughes’ book.

The film takes place in a small Maine town during the middle of the space race and Cold War. As we see Sputnik rotating around the Earth, a 100-foot metal creature thunders past and plummets toward the town. For the next few days, it lurks in a wooded area and consumes anything metal that passes by. Meanwhile, 9-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) is staying up late, eating Twinkies in a fort, and watching monster movies as his single mother (Jennifer Aniston) works late. When Hogarth hears something on the roof, he begins to simulate a space invader attack like his aptly named comic book “Red Menace.” When he arrives in the woods, he finds the giant eating a power plant and saves the robot from certain doom.

“This is the greatest discovery since, I don’t know, television or something!” he says.

What ensues is a wonderful companionship, which Hogarth attempts to keep secret from adults (like his mother) because, as Hogarth puts it, “they’d wig out” and “start shooting.” After trying to hide the giant in his barn for several days, however, Hogarth must confide in hipster artist Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), who owns an all-you-can-eat junkyard for the giant. During their friendship, Hogarth finds that the giant has special powers, and teaches him valuable life lessons and how to speak. One of those lessons is the difference between Atomo and Superman. While the Iron Giant looks like Atomo, an evil robot, Hogarth convinces him to use his powers for good like Superman.

As you can imagine, their fun begins to slow when a fearful and insecure government agent named Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) hears about the giant and tries to locate and destroy it.

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“You think everything is fine, but who built it?” he asks Hogarth. “The Russians, the Chinese, Martians, Canadians, I don’t care! All I know is we didn’t build it and that’s reason enough to assume the worst and blow it to kingdom come.”

This Brad Bird-directed film (he’s the bigwig behind many of Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille) is one of the most touching children’s films I’ve ever seen with plenty political pokes for adults and enough action for kids. Parents will especially enjoy the “Duck and Cover” sequence that resembles the short hygiene films from the 50s.

I’m shocked the film flew so gracefully under the radar (like Russian missiles), though I’m sure the eventual surfacing of Pixar had something to do with it. Even more interesting is the involvement of The Who’s Pete Townshend, who acted as executive producer and produced a concept album based on the book.

Though the 2D animated flick looks to be a typical Disney-animated adventure, Bird gives the animated subjects new life with a camera that soars and swirls around them, instead of a mere left-to-right pan. It is by no means the first appearance of the technique (Beauty and the Beast did it famously in the ballroom sequence), but the tactic works wonders with the giant, who otherwise would have only his metal-grinding grumbles to express his complexity and scale. The movement makes him real and even loveable.

The film takes place during the McCarthyism era that fueled a culture of fear and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Conveniently, it still rings true for audiences today amidst the War on Terror. But the film’s love story is what wins in the end, not its political message. It’s not a love between two individuals, like a romance film or buddy flick, but how a Robot-Alien-Weapon-Thing came to love all living things.

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