“So we have to deal with our technological sophistication versus our spiritual sophistication — and technology always seems to be ahead of where we are spiritually. The machine in the movie ends up representing our own inventive side of ourselves and begs the question: Is it a good thing or is it a dangerous thing?” – Brad Bird
When The Iron Giant was released in 1999, it flew in the face of the current trend popularized by Disney animated musicals. Based on the 1968 children’s book, The Giant: A Story in Five Nights, by late British poet, Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant refuses to rely on musical numbers and simplify its message to appeal to kids. It is one of those rare animated films that both adults and kids can appreciate. It is also a nostalgic ode to the 1950s that is thought-provoking and entertaining.
Set in the small town of Rockwell, Maine in 1957, a nine-year old boy named Hogarth (the voice of Eli Marienthal) befriends a mysterious 50-foot robot (the voice of Vin Diesel) that has crash-landed near the town from outer space. Raised on steady diet of alien invasion B-movies, Hogarth tries his best to hide the presence of his large, metallic friend from his mother (voiced by Jennifer Aniston). He also keeps his new friend a secret from a snooping government agent (voiced by Christopher McDonald), but ends up sharing his secret with Dean, a jazz-loving beatnik sculptor (the voice of Harry Connick, Jr.), who runs the local scrapyard.
The film originated with Pete Townshend (guitarist for the legendary rock band, The Who) who had produced a musical version of Hughes’ book in 1993, called The Iron Man. He brought the project to Warner Brothers with Des McAnuff, director of Tommy (1975), with the idea of transforming it into an animated musical. Animator Brad Bird heard of the project and met with Townsend and the film’s screenwriter, Tim McCanlies. Bird remembers, “I read the book and I liked the book, but I had a whole lot of ideas of my own about what this film could be about. Once it sort of went that direction, I didn’t envision it as a musical.” Bird pitched his take on the material to the studio as follows: “What if a gun had a soul?” Warner Brothers liked the idea and gave the project the go-ahead.
Bird drew his inspirations for the look and feel of the film from two unlikely sources. He was inspired by the cliched and dated educational films depicted in the documentary, The Atomic Café (1982) about the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war in the ‘50s. He also liked the radio broadcast about Sputnik that opens Robert Redford’s film, Quiz Show (1994). Bird said in an interview that “the bomb had changed our perspective and the future was no longer this perfect thing. Every upside had a dark underbelly.”
In many respects, The Iron Giant has a lot in common with another excellent film that came out around the same time, October Sky (1999). Both films are set in the same year (1957) with the beginnings of the space race and the dawn of the atomic age as their respective backdrops to the main action. The young protagonists of each film are dreamers and outsiders of their societies and present refreshingly peaceful resolutions to their respective conflicts.
To further reinforce the ‘50s vibe, Bird shot the film in Cinemascope, a widescreen form of cinema that was created to compete with the rising popularity of television. Bird said in an interview that, “There’s something immersive about the experience. Also, a lot of movies in the late ‘50s were shot in ‘Scope, so I thought it was appropriate for a movie set in 1957.”
The Iron Giant has a wonderfully nostalgic, small-town atmosphere that is brought to life by stunning animation that is on par with anything that Disney has produced in recent years. The attention to period detail, from the cheesy educational videos that Hogarth's class is forced to watch, to the way the townspeople talk, is faithfully recreated and goes a long way to drawing the viewer into this engaging world.
The animation style of this film recalls the early, groundbreaking Fleischer brothers” Superman cartoons of the 1940s with its depth of field, but without the German Expressionist influence. Bird and his team mixed computer animation (the robot) with traditional hand-drawn animation (the rest of the characters) in an exaggerated, cartoonish fashion that went against the current trend of realistically rendered characters (see Pixar). For Bird, “the reason to do animation is caricature. It’s the same reason that photography didn’t render portraiture obsolete. It’s because you can draw things in a way that is not trying to reproduce reality, but more the essence of reality.”
The real strength of The Iron Giant is the relationships between the characters — something that is often overlooked in animated films in favor of flashy visuals and epic musical numbers. This film has the feel of a very intimate, character-driven story with the relationship between Hogarth and his robot friend as the emotional center but with several other relationships (like the ones between Hogarth and his mother and between him and Dean) featured prominently as well. This is no simple Saturday morning cartoon but a strong feature film that actually has something to say.
The Iron Giant enjoyed positive reviews from most critics. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and felt that it wasn’t merely “a cute romp but an involving story that has something to say.” In his review for The New York Times, Lawrence van Gelder wrote, “Many adults, including parents eager to have their children absorb lessons about the perils of guns and the merits of peace and tolerance, will doubtless approve of the film's messages while they ponder how the passing years have smoothed the jagged edges of history.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “At times, The Iron Giant is more serene than it needs to be, but it's a lovely and touching daydream.” The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman wrote, “The music doesn't flood the script with sentiment or canned nostalgia, and the movie is even restrained in its toilet jokes. Remarkably unassuming, genuinely playful, and superbly executed, The Iron Giant towers over the cartoon landscape.” In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum praised the film’s “flavorsome period ambience and its lively and satiric characters.”
The Iron Giant did not do as well at the box office as Bird had hoped. Traditionally, animated films set promotional deals a year in advance so that the appropriate amount of hype and advanced word can be created. Warner Brothers delayed giving the film a release date and so every time Bird courted a potential sponsor, they would lose interest because no concrete date was set. Very few advanced posters and trailers were created and this hurt the film when it was finally released. It only grossed $23 million but has since found a new life on video and DVD.
The Iron Giant is one of those rare animated films that not only appeals to both children and adults; it does not contain one annoying musical number. It is also refuses to serve as one long, obvious advertisement for a toy. In fact, this film is an entertaining, even touching story about tolerance and compassion. It deals with real issues like death and bigotry — pretty heavy topics for a children's animated film — in an honest and heartfelt way. From all indications, The Iron Giant was clearly a labor of love for those involved and this translates into an enjoyable film for everyone to enjoy.