Despite being responsible for some of the finest animated television shows of the past twenty-five years or so (Animaniacs, Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated), Warner Bros. never managed to make much of a name for itself in the feature animation department. The first Warner Bros. Feature Animation title was Space Jam, which became one of the most unlikely megahits of 1996. After that, it was a downhill trip, with one movie after another failing to generate much public interest. However, during that financial slide, Warner Bros. managed to deliver a single masterpiece: Brad Bird's The Iron Giant. The movie crashed at the box office, but it has stood the test of time and is now widely recognized as one of the great animated films of the 1990s. A whopping sixteen years later, a new “signature edition” of the film (which adds two brief-but-exceptional new scenes) has been given a limited theatrical release. Too little, too late, perhaps, but nonetheless a welcome opportunity to revisit a modern classic.
It's appropriate that the words “A Brad Bird Film” appear in large font on The Iron Giant's re-release poster – not simply because Bird is a much more prominent filmmaker than he was in 1999, but because you can feel his artistic sensibility and personality in every frame of this movie. It's a beautiful display of his affection for the idea-fueled wonder of the atomic age, his knack for fusing thoughtful character development with high-energy action sequences, his faith in humanity's basic decency, his gift for creating an atmosphere of good-natured silliness and his utterly sincere warmth. It's as smart, entertaining and moving as premium-grade Spielberg.
The film opens in dramatic fashion, as a giant metal robot (Vin Diesel, The Fast and the Furious) falls from the sky and crash-lands in the Atlantic ocean near the coast of Rockwell, Maine. Eventually, the giant makes his way to dry land and is discovered by Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal, American Pie) a wide-eyed lad with a big imagination. The robot and Hogarth have a little trouble communicating early on, but they quickly form something resembling a friendship. Hogarth has seen enough B-movies and read enough comic books to know that the general public is unlikely to respond calmly to the presence of such a strange monstrosity, so he immediately begins searching for a place to hide the giant until he can figure out what to do.
Naturally, it isn't long before more people start getting curious about the mysterious creature that is eating their cars (the giant sustains itself by feeding on metal) and leaving (entirely accidental) destruction in its wake. The government sends secret agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald, Requiem for a Dream) to investigate the situation, and Kent eagerly accepts his role as the film's chief villain. McDonald's vocal performance is arguably the film's best; a pitch-perfect Rod Serling imitation that occasionally lapses into fury and mania. He's hilarious, until you're reminded that his impotent rage may actually be rather potent.
The film's emotional core owes a debt to Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (in the context of this film, “I go... you stay,” has much raw power as, “E.T. phone home!”), but the film is mostly rooted in the gee-whiz science-fiction of the 1950s (the film is set in 1957, and Bird has fun gently satirizing the “duck and cover” naivete of the era). In one delightful scene, Hogarth gleefully shows the giant his vast collection of comic books and magazines, and the giant is struck by one magazine's portrait of a giant metal menace. Hogarth brushes off the similarities. “You're more like Superman!” the kid insists, holding up a copy of Action Comics. “Superman,” the giant muses, still unable to remember the specifics of his mission.
Seeing The Iron Giant in 2015 offers a slightly heartbreaking reminder of how rare 2D animation has become, much less 2D animation as elegant and vibrant as this. In many ways, Bird's movie is perhaps the closest any filmmaker has come to creating the American equivalent of a Miyazaki film. I'm not only talking about the graceful, personal quality of the animation, but also about the way the film contrasts gentle cultural specificity with spectacular fantasy film wonders. This isn't just a giant robot fantasy, but a giant robot fantasy that draws heavily on the fears and dreams of a particular moment in American history. Like Joe Dante's Matinee, it's a joyous entertainment that also doubles as a melancholy snapshot of Cold War America.
Bird is less subtle when it comes to the film's anti-gun themes, but in that case, the directness is appreciated. In the process of learning how to communicate with Hogarth, the giant interprets “gun” as a catch-all word for “killing machine.” “I am not a gun,” the giant insists, but his feelings conflict with his programming. We learn that he has been programmed to shoot deadly laser beams at any firearm he sees. When the military inevitably shows up, the firepower they bring with them triggers the giant's lethal defense mechanism. The message is clear: even when they're used for defense purposes, guns ultimately make life more dangerous and put people at risk. I couldn't help but wonder if a family film made in today's audience survey-obsessed market could get away with such a polarizing statement.
There are heavy moments in The Iron Giant, but this isn't a heavy film, because Bird knows precisely how to shift the mood from dark to light without betraying the film's emotional core. The movie can be Looney Tunes-level goofy when it wants to be, but the film is anchored by profoundly emotional moments of fear, longing and goodness. Hogarth believes that the giant is fundamentally good. His belief is enough to make the giant want to be good. “Love changes all” is a familiar theme in family movies, but The Iron Giant expresses that notion with extraordinarily elegant persuasiveness.
The Iron Giant
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 88 minutes
Release Year: 1999