The Iron Giant (1999)
Had the there been a category for best animated picture at the 1999 Academy Awards, there is little doubt in my mind that The Iron Giant would have been among the contenders. Released the same year as Disney’s Tarzan and Pixar’s Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant gained little hype before reaching theaters, though other movies certainly weren’t to take all the blame for this. Warner Brothers Studios, who distributed the movie, is largely blamed for it’s poor handling of it’s marketing campaign, believing that “smarter family films” just didn’t sell. They amped up the marketing machine for the video release, giving it the recognition it still has today.
Brad Bird, who later went on to direct The Incredibles, taps into the nastolgia associated with an era gone by. The warm faded colors bring to life the 1950s era that the story takes place, Hogarth (the young boy who leads the plot along with the titular character) loves classic comic books from the, he watches B rated horror movies on television and lives oblivious to the fear associated with the cold war.
The film follows Hogarth, the lonely child whose father died, and whose mother works hard to support them. He finds a friend in the form of a giant robot that fell from the sky. The robot, who knows nothing about his creation or his origins due to a bump on his head, is like Hogarth. They’re both naive and impressionable. The iron giant may have been given directives, for all anyone knows he may have been instructed to attack any and all living things on American soil, but he’s forgotten. While most other live action variations of this type of movie would focus on the fear of the unknown threat and the horror that could ensue, this movie looks at the wonder and the pure elation of the situation. While most adults in the movie are horrified of the mysterious occurrences caused by the 40 foot robot, Hogarth, after getting over the initial shock of the situation, thinks what any little boy would think: This is so cool.
The closest iteration of this story I can think of outside of this film is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial. Both movies tell stories of innocent beings who are unfamiliar with earth (or the US, it’s not entirely clear where the iron giant comes from) that befriend and learn from young boys. The innocence that comes with childhood causes a change in the iron giant. Whatever he was created for initially begins to struggle with who he has become. The giant has to choose if he is like Atomo, the evil robot from Hogarth’s comics or Superman, defender of the earth.
The atmosphere of the movie is enhanced by a musical score that highlights the suspenseful moments, while at the same time showcasing the “cool factor” of having a giant robot as your best friend. The whole movie feels less like a cartoon than a live action feature due to the elements that surround the story. Though it isa cartoon, you can almost feel the restraint it must have taken to not allow people and scenes to play out like one. On rare occasions are laws of physics completely ignored, and all the characters move and act like real people with vastly different personalities and mannerisms. Brad Bird has a way of handling films that causes him to be blind to the mediums of film. The Incredibles was just as much an action film as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a cartoon. The line is blurred the same way in The Iron Giant, which is a testament to his talent, and a talent that is all too often overlooked when dealing with animated features and film making as a whole.
The Iron Giant is one of my favorite traditionally animated films. I especially like the atomic age setting with the associated googie art direction. On a related note, The Incredibles is probably one of my favorite CGI films, with its impeccable sense of modernism.
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