screenplay by Tim McCanlies, based on The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
directed by Brad Bird
by Walter Chaw Brad Bird's The Iron Giant, based on a children's book, The Iron Man, that British poet laureate (and Mr. Sylvia Plath) Ted Hughes wrote after his wife's suicide, is improbably transformed from the dark and Anglocentric source into a throughline pure and sweet to the rapturous Americana of Richard Donner's Superman. It captures an impossible period existing between the idealism of Rockwell and the lonely realist decompositions of Edward Hopper in a flurry of animated cels, telling the tale of a boy and his robot in the month or so when Sputnik was scaring the bejesus out of a suddenly-humbled, suddenly-Luddite United States. Accordingly, the Colour from Outer Space that was the monstrous bad guy in the book is transformed in the film into the paranoia of a country taught to fear an invisible (or barely visible) foe--marking The Iron Giant as something of a timeless picture particularly topical for a country embroiled in a war on foreign soil, a war with an invisible enemy, and the makings of a cold war with a country that has decided the only way to combat American aggression is with nuclear weapons. Tellingly, it's the appearance of nukes at the end of The Iron Giant that coaxes out the heart of the titular tin man--the last word that he has in the picture--"Superman"--whispered with something like awe that has never failed to bring a tear to my secretly-patriotic eye.
Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) is the son of single-parent/diner waitress Annie (Jennifer Aniston, never better). One evening following a junk food-and-B-movie binge, Hogarth wanders out into the woods and discovers a giant robot that has fallen from the heavens, purpose unknown. A dent in the creature's head and a savage electrocution suggests that it doesn't, itself, know what it's been designed for, either, and so it models itself on the infant morality of young Hogarth, himself discovering hard truths about the difficulty of trust in a suspicious world. Beatnik Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), exiled to his scrapyard with his metal sculptures, becomes Hogarth's adult confidante, while Agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) becomes his enemy, seeking the truth in classic sci-fi government-goon mode for the greater glory.
The Iron Giant suggests The Day the Earth Stood Still, but rather than have the heavenly emissaries go on about the failings of the human race, it has the giant a blank slate upon which the failings of the human race are reflected. The crucial difference, as it is to a far lesser degree in Robert Wise's classic, is that it's the guidance of a child, a moral individual and a staunch humanitarian, that has the final imprint. Fascinatingly, it's the harsh example of Disney's Bambi and the fawn's jarringly quick recovery from his mother's murder that inspired Bird to insert a similar scene in The Iron Giant--and then to follow it with the full implication of an act of unimaginable and senseless violence on the minds of the impressionable.
Easily one of the best American films of the 1990s, The Iron Giant adopts the look and feel of the most nostalgic era of the canonized Greatest Generation. Burnished with a golden glow, the picture's undercurrent of madness and paranoia is all the more poignant and encapsulated in a scene where the giant, carrying Hogarth in his hand, makes an excited headlong-rush toward the quiet suburb where Hogarth was born before stopping short at its charge's panicked pleading. "They're not ready for you," he says--and the implication of that (as well as the hope embedded within it's unspoken "yet") is the stuff of which heroic sea changes in popular opinion are made. The film will illustrate just such a shift once the Iron Giant takes on the responsibility of another alien humanist (Superman, introduced to it by Hogarth via ACTION COMICS), saving a couple of kids from a fall and earning the trust of a small town's citizenry before its actions are misunderstood and a nuclear apocalypse is narrowly averted.
It's a film that doesn't take any easy ways out of its conundrums--that understands the complexity of situations in a way that children's--any--entertainment too seldom embraces. The military isn't seen as the bad guy; neither is the provinciality of a rural population. Rather, the things that worry in The Iron Giant are the eternal bogeys of ignorance and fear that drive some to violence, others to withdraw, and still others to close their minds to the possibility that even the most foreign, alien things can be harmless or, perish the thought, beneficial somehow. And through it all, The Iron Giant manages to maintain a melancholy mourning for the death of an age that never could have been, transforming that immortal Fifties-dawn into a feeling closely guarded, warm in the chests of the dreamers that most of us used to be.
Perhaps anticipating that the success of Bird's The Incredibles would lead to a renewed interest in his first effort (or perhaps just recognizing that the time was ripe for a well-deserved Special Edition of this title), Warner re-releases The Iron Giant on DVD in a stacked, stunning presentation. It's a cause, therefore, for both celebration and disappointment for those in the know--but a nice addition to the library if you've never seen it or just never shelled-out in the past for it. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer pops and crackles from the first velveteen scarlets of the specially-created Warner Bros. Animation logo to the closing shots of a Frankensteinian arctic waste. Clean, free of any artifacts like banding or pixellation, it looks even better than the 2000 release, which was excellent for its time. The DD 5.1 audio shakes the dishes in the cupboards (at least it does at the obscene volume I had it cranked)--sound emanates with force, logic, and fidelity from every channel. It's a wonderful technical presentation from end-to-end--not a complaint of substance that I can conjure.
A feature commentary by Bird, animation head Tony Fucile, story producer Jeff Lynch, and principal Giant animator Steven Markowski is full of affection and light on plot recreation. Too much time is given over to congratulating one another and various other anonymous staff on particular accomplishments, but I was sort of amazed by how many different artists had a hand in the seamless animation. You always know that there are a lot of cooks in the soup, but to see a demonstration of exactly what scene, sometimes expression, belongs to a different animator, is humbling. A moment as the Giant pauses before the abovementioned burg sees a tiny star moving next to the moon, which Bird, et al., identify as Sputnik, haunting the film from its 1957 orbit. Little moments like that make the yakker valuable--as does a mention of a picture of Hogarth's lost father in his room that, heartening to all involved, seems to be one of those personal throwaway details that everyone notices. It says something nice about the human race that we do. Thirteen short-documentaries are accessible through the film itself in a "blue pill" function: Click on an icon of nuts and bolts that appears on the screen with the feature enabled to watch mini-films concerning casting, animating, and, occasionally, Bird's theory of a certain scene.
Eight additional scenes are included, each with an introduction by Bird. The first is the original opening sequence (5 mins.), recreated with storyboards, partial pencil-sketch animatics, and excerpts from Michael Kamen's score and bare voice acting. The sequence is mentioned with some hilarity in the commentary track, where it's referred to as totally bloated and superfluous but "cool" in its depiction of the eye of a hurricane opening above a large ship and a crew of dozens. (It's actually quite haunting.) "Campfire" (1 min.) is Dean and Hogarth wrestling with the mysterious origins and potentially dangerous purpose of the Giant--it's existentially ponderous and a good elision, ultimately, but for fans of the film, this overt deepening of the father/son relationship between Dean and orphaned Hogarth is touching. "The Drag Race" (1 min.) is a somewhat requisite homage to Rebel Without a Cause, and "Tired At Breakfast" (2 mins.) takes place on an additional "day" in the story of the film depicting the day after the one where Hogarth has given Mansley a laxative. Partially-animated, the sequence is voice-acted by Aniston, Marienthal, and McDonald with a shot of Hogarth on a bike that is pretty priceless.
The "Original Introduction of Hogarth and Annie" (2 mins.) is a scene that was essentially replaced by that single shot of Hogarth's dad in a picture in his room--again half-animated and dubbed by the actual cast, the scene ties to the scuttled opening, making it doubly expendable. It's a nice sequence, warm, and, betraying the geekism in me, it has me longing for a complete alternate version of the film. (Just so long as it's not an adaptation of Hughes's fairly awful sequel to his own book, The Iron Woman.) "Classroom" (2 mins.) resurrects some of Cloris Leachman's teacher cameo in a bit that establishes Hogarth as a good student, there mainly, I think, to further massage the feeling of Americana that already saturates the piece. It's another nice passage--the record is in the groove and skipping, I fear. "Annie and Dean in the Diner" (1 min.), voice actors in place, has Dean and Annie flirting warmly and discussing Hogarth's loneliness. And finally, and most startling, is "The Giant's Dream" (2 mins., introduced by storyboard artist Kevin O'Brien in addition to Bird), showing the giant's night frights broadcast onto Dean's television as an analog to the Elephants On Parade sequence from Dumbo. Verging on surreal, it's frightening and heartbreaking, offering a glimpse of an army of Iron Giants laying waste, genocidally, to an alien solar system and its populating civilization.
"Teddy Newton: The X-Factor" (5 mins.) refers to storyboard artist Newton, who would produce such wild ideas in his conceptual art that it inspired the artists on the production to sometimes go in different, previously unexpected directions. A Newton storyboard of Annie getting ready for a date reminds me a little of the weird sexuality of, say, Crumb, married to the visual style of the classic MAD MAGAZINE. It's really sort of insane, come to think of it, with a blind date ending in a Canadian fast food joint serving moose shanks. Indescribable. The "Duck and Cover" scene is another Newton production (2 mins.), a little educational film experiment that Bird solicited primarily for giggles--and giggles it provides. Newton's admission that the whole thing came to him in a dream, like "Kubla Khan" for Coleridge, is amusing mainly because of what it says about what's going on in Newton's brain at night. "This'll keep the radiation from rubbin' on ya," promises a hard-hat clad beaver. So I laughed, what can I say? "Voice of the Giant" (2 mins.) is Vin Diesel at his family-friendliest (can I confess that I'm in mortal terror of The Pacifier, and not just because Diesel's latent homosexuality--the gaydar is going off like a claxon--will suddenly be the star rather than that which dare not speak its name), as he speaks about grunting his dozen or so lines in the film. Have to admit that he's good in The Iron Giant and it's here that we get a lot of Bird's thoughts on Bambi.
Rounding out the platter: a "Motion Gallery" (4 mins.), essentially a compilation of concept art, finished animations, and so on set to score (a moving stills gallery); a nice, non-anamorphic theatrical trailer (2 mins.); "Brad Bird Trailer (2 mins.), a rough-looking spot narrated by Bird in what appears to be the trailer if Bird edited the trailer; plus various and sundry DVD-ROM items that promptly crashed my prehistoric hard drive. There is an Easter Egg on each of the two Special Features menus, the first revealing a letter written by Ted Hughes regarding the status of this project in pre-production, the second a ten-second animatic of a practical joke played on Mansley by, we assume, Hogarth. It should be mentioned that the revised keepcase and silkscreen artwork are remarkably evocative. The care that's gone into just the physical trappings of this disc is fair, if belated, compensation from the studio for the dismissive way it treated The Iron Giant's theatrical release. Originally published: March 7, 2005.