Before he became known as a “Mission: Impossible” director or the guy who brought “The Incredibles” to the screen for Disney/Pixar, Brad Bird made the animated film “The Iron Giant” for Warner Bros. Animation. It’s absolutely brilliant in its visual drawings, storytelling, characterizations and period setting awareness.
The film takes place in a small town off the coast of Maine in the year 1957. The race for space has declared a winner as the Russians’ satellite, Sputnik, is the first to orbit the planet. The threat of the Cold War is no longer a secret. It’s out in the open as classrooms are exposed to danger drill warning films where children must hide under their desks in the event that a nuclear holocaust occurs. The film they watch is an absolutely hilarious sequence about what was a pretty serious subject matter at the time.
One student gleefully takes in the residual flying saucer flicks on TV, that spawned from this quagmire of paranoia occupying America at the time. His name is Hogarth Hughes, voiced by Eli Marienthal. When his TV antenna turns up missing one night, Hogarth goes off into the woods where he discovers a giant robot munching on the metal of a nearby power plant and in danger of electrocution when he gets tangled in the wires. The robot (Vin Diesel) is unfamiliar with earth and recognizably innocent, but quickly trusts Hogarth as a friend.
Young Hogarth is thrilled upon his discovery but knows his mom (Jennifer Aniston) would never approve of him keeping the robot, much less even a small pet. A government bureaucrat named Kent Manley (Christopher McDonald), complete with the fedora hat and trench coat, becomes suspicious of Hogarth. Kent’s Cold War guard drives him to uncover this 50 foot robot with his own eyes. Find the threat and eliminate it at all costs. When he eventually gathers the evidence, he calls in the military to wage war right in the heart of the small Maine town.
There is much humor in “The Iron Giant” which truly stems from the intelligence gifted to all of the characters. Hogarth, as a kid, is first a teacher as the robot learns to pronounce basic vocabulary. The Iron Giant who has the capability to shape shift his body into a blaster kind of weapon, is not aware at first of the destruction he can leave behind until Hogarth makes him understand. Early on, Hogarth learns that the giant feeds on metal, but he must show his friend the best way to satisfy his hunger. It’s not with railroad tracks, that’s for sure.
Hogarth also matches wits with Kent. A great scene has the G-man and the kid defying each other to stay awake, rather than go off into the night in search of the giant. The clock just ticks away. Their eyes get more and more droopy. The laughs come from the animated characterizations and editing.
Hogarth’s mother, Annie, is never regarded as naive even if she’s unaware of her son’s new secret friend. A great scene has Hogarth doing his best to hide the giant’s metal hand in his bathroom. Hogarth has to do some quick but believable thinking to cover up what’s crawling around the house. Annie is a mom concerned her son might be violently ill, but trusts him when he insists he’s alright. I like that. Mom regards son as an equal. She respects his privacy but regrets it when she steps out of bounds to peek in on him in the bathroom. It’s sweet, smart but funny too.
The Cold War is likely not a familiar subject matter for most kids, and yet there’s something to learn here. Russia and America were on the dawn of new technology. The nuclear age was upon us. The question was will they or won’t they act upon that technology. As well, will the two countries act in response to simply the threat of having such power at their fingertips? That’s what The Iron Giant of the film represents. When the giant, metal eating man is uncovered what response will it generate?
As the film progresses, kids can see why a resort to violence is truly not the answer. For how we appear might not offer an explanation on the surface. We need to familiarize ourselves with one another before truly declaring an enemy in our midst. So many movies only exist because one character just won’t speak up. Brad Bird’s film, adapted from Ted Hughes’ book “The Iron Man,” goes against that convention. A beatnik character by the name of Dean (Harry Connick Jr) who helps Hogarth and his new friend actually explains how the robot is not a dangerous figure who wants to destroy our planet. It then becomes a means of debate for the purposes of violence between the Army General (John Mahoney) and Kent Mansley, the government official. Do they believe the giant won’t become destructive?
I like to think a moment like this offers a subtle suggestion for the people in positions of power that are in charge to justify whether to go to war or not. It might be simplistic animation and the suspense is heightened by the time the film reaches this moment, but it’s another opportunity for viewers, especially kid viewers, to decide for themselves of what is right and wrong. Is defense or engaging in offense a more appropriate action?
Too often in family films, the kids are geniuses, maybe a little too smart or inventive, and the adults and parents are nitwits as a means for slapstick gags. Not the case here. Every character has an intelligent perspective. That’s what sets “The Iron Giant” ahead of other subpar family films.
Credit also has to go to the animation. There’s depth to everything seen from the main street of the town to the ocean side harbor to the woods where the giant hides. The sketches are so well defined, you want to look in the windows or sneak around the next tree. This is masterful direction. While an animated film is never shot in an actual location, Brad Bird makes sure you’ll see every corner of the New England locales that are conceived for “The Iron Giant.”
Everything about “The Iron Giant” is a crowning achievement in animation. One of the best of its medium for sure.