Iron Giant, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Over the past few years, as studios like Disney, Dreamworks, and Fox have worked to revive motion picture animation, Warner Brothers has remained mired in the lackluster morass that nearly killed animation during the '80s. The distributor's big effort of several years ago, The Quest for Camelot, remains one of the most depressing animated underachievers of the decade. And this year's The King and I was an absolute embarrassment - a new nadir in animated miscalculation. Given Warner Brothers' recent track record, it's no wonder that I approached their latest, The Iron Giant, with more than a hint of misgiving. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. This is top-notch entertainment.

The reason for The Iron Giant's success isn't hard to discern - it has to do with the writing. The script is crisp, smartly-paced, intelligent, and emotionally satisfying. It recalls the strengths of E.T. without the weaknesses. It introduces real, likable characters worth caring about and rooting for. It's the kind of story with the power to engross 6-year olds and 60-year olds alike because it doesn't condescend. The Iron Giant is filled with small moments that only older viewers will get, but which pass so quickly that kids won't realize they have missed anything. The filmmakers responsible for The Iron Giant, particularly director Brad Bird (making his feature debut after having helmed episodes of "The Simpsons" on TV), recognize that the best animated features appeal to a wide variety of audience members, not just the pre-teen set, and have used that philosophy as the picture's cornerstone.

The place is Rockwell, Maine. The year is 1957 (although some of the modern slang employed by the characters might cause us to doubt this). Grade schooler Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) is forever looking for a pet that his mother, Annie (voice of Jennifer Aniston), will allow him to keep. Little does he know that the non-human companion he will gain is considerably different from the raccoons and squirrels he usually brings home. One night while his mother is working late at the diner where she waitresses, Hogarth hears a noise outside. By the time he goes to check, nothing is there, but he can see a swath of destruction: broken fences, trampled ground, and downed trees. So he follows the trail into the forest to a nearby power station. It's there that he first glimpses the Iron Giant (voice of Vin Diesel) - a 100-foot tall robot from space that eats metal. When it runs afoul of some live wires, Hogarth finds the station's "Off" switch to cut the power, saving the Iron Giant from electrocution. After another chance encounter the next day, Hogarth and the Giant become friends, but danger is lurking in the wings. A dastardly government agent, Kent Mansley (voice of Christopher McDonald), who tracks down unexplained phenomenon, is convinced that Hogarth knows something about the strange goings-on around Rockwell, and he is determined to use any means necessary to learn the truth.

The Iron Giant teaches lessons about friendship, tolerance, and sacrifice, all without turning preachy. Although Hogarth is initially frightened by his huge friend (who wouldn't be?), he soon comes to realize that, despite the Giant's massive size, he's actually quite childlike and gentle. Hogarth becomes both his friend and his teacher, giving him speech lessons and occasionally discussing philosophical issues, like whether a robot can have a soul. The film also has a fairly strong anti-gun message. "Guns kill," says Hogarth at one point after he and the Giant encounter a deer that has been slain by hunters. He impresses upon his oversized companion that it's a bad thing to take a life - a lesson that is important late in the film when it becomes apparent that the Giant has the capacity to turn into a lethal weapon.

In addition to its effective dramatic elements, The Iron Giant contains a share of successful comedy. I laughed aloud during one sequence - when the Giant decides to emulate Hogarth's cannonball plunge into a lake - and chuckled during several others. Some of the humor is fairly sophisticated, but most has a broad enough base to be enjoyed by everyone in the audience, regardless of age, gender, or race. There's a scene in which Hogarth chases the Giant's detached hand around his house, trying to keep it out of his mother's sight. A local junk dealer/beatnick (voice of Harry Connick Jr.) gets the Giant to participate in an "arts and crafts" session. Kent Mansley is portrayed as a caricature of every motion picture G-man. And there's even a little flatulence, although it's considerably more tame than in most of today's films.

The Iron Giant is the second family-oriented animated film to reach theaters this summer. Visually, it doesn't come close to Tarzan. In fact, while the characters and the foreground objects are well-realized, the backgrounds are often static and unimpressive. Stacked up against Disney's latest, The Iron Giant looks like a second-tier production. That, however, is the film's lone weakness. In terms of the soundtrack, we are spared even the whisper of a song, and composer Michael Kamen's subtle melodies are perfectly wedded to the action. And, in another break with recent animated tradition, there are no cute sidekicks. But The Iron Giant's real strength lies in the story and character development. It's in this arena that this movie proves to be vastly superior to Tarzan, which makes it a strong contender for the title of this summer's best family film.

Iron Giant, The (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:20
U.S. Release Date: 1999-08-06
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1