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The Iron Giant (1999)

April 30th, 2008 · 7 Comments

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Synopsis
As Sputnik orbits Earth in the year 1957, something from outer space plummets through the eye of a storm and lands in the waters off the coast of “Rockwell,” Maine. The next day, Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) visits his mother (Jennifer Aniston) at the diner where she works. A local salt (M. Emmet Walsh) is convinced he saw “an invader from Mars” crash into the sea. When he’s ridiculed, a beatnik named Dean (Harry Connick Jr.) sticks up for him, befriending Hogarth in the process.

With his mother working late, Hogarth stays up watching a sci-fi movie. Hearing something in the woods, he wanders outside and encounters a one hundred foot tall robot tangled in power lines. Hogarth saves the giant. The government sends the hyper vigilant Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) to investigate the weird goings-on in Rockwell. Hogarth returns to the woods the next day and befriends the giant, which doesn’t speak, but seems to understand the boy. When it accidentally causes a train derailment, Hogarth hides the giant in a barn.

Mansley discovers Hogarth was at the scene of the accident and rents a room from his mother to find out what the boy knows. Hogarth moves the giant into the junkyard managed by the beatnik Dean, an aspiring iron sculptor. Their ruse works, until the giant’s awesome defense system mistakes Hogarth’s toy gun for a threat and almost vaporizes him. The giant runs away, and when the U.S. Army discovers it, attacks. Mansley is so zealous he orders a nuclear strike on Rockwell. As the town awaits their destruction, the giant realizes it can choose whether to destroy life, or protect it.

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Production history
The Iron Man was a 1968 children’s book by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. Published in the U.S. as The Iron Giant, the book concerned a giant robot that surfaces from the ocean and befriends a young boy. Hughes originated the story to console his two children following the suicide of their mother, poet Sylvia Plath in 1963. Pete Townsend of The Who was later searching for material to adapt into a rock opera and in 1986, settled on The Iron Man. A concept album was spawned three years later and in 1993, a stage musical in London.

With The Lion King a sensation at the box office and Hollywood studios all racing to set up their own feature animation units, Townsend’s collaborator – theater producer Des McAnuff – sold the property to Warner Bros. The studio was eager to work with Brad Bird, a 39-year-old animator best known for directing a very well received animated episode of Amazing Stories called Family Dog and serving as an executive consultant on The Simpsons and King of the Hill.

Bird looked at the projects the studio had in development and saw a drawing of a young boy and a robot. He read The Iron Man and ultimately pitched his own version to Warner Bros. “Hughes’ book is a great story that tries to show kids about the cycle of life. Even though there is death, life has a continuity. My version is based around a question I asked the execs at Warner Bros. What if a gun had a soul and chose not to be a gun? Basically I wanted to honor the book, but also take it in a new direction.”

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In January 1997, Tim McCanlies and Brent Forrester were hired to work from Bird’s story treatment and to adapt a screenplay with the director. Working at Warner Bros. Feature Animation in Glendale – with “one-third of the money of a Disney or DreamWorks film, and half of the production schedule” according to Bird – the filmmakers received a green light for production. Tony Fucile was chosen as head of animation and hired the team to design the movie. While drawn mostly in traditional two-dimensional animation, the Iron Giant proved so difficult to visualize that CGI was employed to give the character mass and solidity.

Working from sketches by Joe Johnston, Bird, production designer Mark Whiting and supervising CGI animator Steve Markowski also incorporated visual cues from ‘50s sci-fi classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still for the look and feel of the Giant. Bird rejected the idea of designing the characters around whichever movie stars they could cast. Instead, he looked for voices that fit his concept of who the characters were. Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel and Christopher Macdonald were selected.

The film scored high with test audiences and began to build enthusiastic word of mouth, but Warner Bros. was reeling from a disastrous experience producing an animated film called The Quest For Camelot. Their feature animation unit was already being scaled back and the decision was made to market The Iron Giant strictly to kids. None of its actors were booked on talk shows. No magazine ads were taken out. Bird wasn’t even permitted to cut his own trailer. Both Danny Elfman and John Williams were considered to score the picture, but the studio opted for Michael Kamen instead.

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Arriving in theaters August 1999, The Iron Giant went on to gross $23 million in the U.S. It added another $80 million overseas, but the film was pronounced a box office failure. President of production Lorenzo di Bonaventura would later state, “People always say to me, ‘Why don’t you make smarter family movies?’ The lesson is, every time you do, you get slaughtered.” Bird maintained that disarray at the studio actually enabled him to make the film he wanted, and he remained grateful to Warner Bros. for giving him the opportunity to direct his first feature.

Opinion
By producing an animated film without talking animals, musical numbers or smug pop culture references, Bird’s directorial debut would’ve towered over recent fare from Disney or DreamWorks merely because it does something creative in its medium. The reason The Iron Giant is a classic is its unwavering devotion to story and character, qualities you rarely see most live action movies. The film isn’t an excuse to sell toys or commercial tie-ins to kids. This is a film that engages the emotions of the audience and engages them beautifully.

Bird’s passion for comic book mythology, domestic situation comedy and science fiction – the sequence where the Giant unleashes his alien weaponry against the Army is any film geek’s dream – is ideally suited for this material. The film is loaded with visual wit, like a Duck and Cover newsreel, or the yin and yang icon on the back of Dean’s bathrobe. Beyond it’s visceral excitement and humor, the film’s characters are invested with heart, and the story has something relevant to say about humanity. The Iron Giant has it all and stand as one of the great animated films of the ‘90s.

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Angus Wolfe Murray at Eye For Film writes, “The film works on almost every level, particularly its central relationship. The animators, scriptwriter (Tim McCanlies) and Vin Diesel, who creates a mode of speech for the giant, have succeeded in giving the massive Meccano model a heart and soul, without resorting to those special Spielberg moments.”

The Iron Giant is one of those rare, truly magical animated movies that has a heart as big as Mount Everest, but never becomes too saccharine sweet. There’s a fabulous voice cast, including Jennifer Aniston in (for this reviewer) her first un-annoying role ever as Hogarth’s mom … Add to this a soundtrack that gives that extra zing to proceedings and we’re left with a near-perfect melding of computer graphics and traditional cel animation that presents to us a truly moving story that never drags,” writes Amy Flower at DVD Net.

Jen Walker at AboutFilm.com writes, “The Iron Giant offers a look back into an era fondly remembered. It is steeped in 1950s paranoia and naivete, a story whole and separate from the world in which millenial children currently exist. In a decade full of extreme advertising, extreme sports, and even extreme snacks, modern children may not appreciate a movie such as The Iron Giant. But if we can get them to slow down long enough to give it a chance, they will be treated to something truly special in this day and age: a damn good story.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Animation · Based on novel · Military · Mother/son relationship · No opening credits · Paranoia · Small town

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam R // May 1, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    “Family Dog” is a true treasure. I recorded it off the Amazing Stories broadcast and used to watch it all the time. Too bad it’s not on DVD since the first season of Amazing Stories apparently sold poorly. “Iron Giant” has a great message that has only gotten stronger since its release.

  • 2 Burbanked // May 3, 2008 at 5:25 am

    I had actually never watched IRON GIANT until just a few months ago, and I’ve since bought it and watched it numerous times. My kids – raised on Pixar and old Scooby Doos – LOVE it and request it all the time, even though some parts make them sad.

    And there’s the difference right there: Bird crafts not just terrific entertainment, but films that actually make you feel something.

    As ever, Joe, great piece.

  • 3 Craig Kennedy // May 8, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    Terrific review Joe. I’d allowed IG to slip under my radar for the longest time as well and then finally caught it recently at the pleading of people who know better.

    Wow, what a gem. As great as the sci-fi elements were, what really sold the picture was its emotional core. The bond the kid formed with the robot was genuinely moving.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // May 8, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Adam: I have Family Dog on tape somewhere as well. I haven’t watched Amazing Stories since it was broadcast in the mid-’80s and am sure this episode holds up among the best. Thanks for commenting!

    Alan: A prevailing notion on kids and animation today is that they have no attention span in the case of boys, or need everything to be “cute” in the case of girls. Your comment reminds me that selling your audience short on story is not a good idea no matter how old they are. Thanks for commenting. Your kids sound cool!

    Craig: I’m glad you enjoyed the film, although it’s hard for me to imagine anyone finding The Iron Giant and not becoming emotionally involved with the story and characters. That’s Brad Bird’s gift. I’m really looking forward to his foray in live action next year.

  • 5 ****** ****** // Dec 20, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    I really loved it when I first got it for my birthday. The VHS played well and so does the DVD. The animation looks good, the music is releaxing, soothing and it sounds as a dollar.
    I really want to order the VHS from the VHS factory.

  • 6 kenneth // Feb 4, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    omg i love this movie lol

  • 7 Reiska // Dec 5, 2013 at 6:26 am

    Best animation in the world.

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