Friday, February 8, 2013

The Iron Giant Movie Review

I love Brad Bird. He’s an outstanding writer and director. He’s done a couple of my favorite animated movies, including The Incredibles and Ratatouille. His directorial debut in major motion pictures was The Iron Giant (1999). I do not understand why The Iron Giant was a box office flop. It’s message was meaningful in its day, but is probably even more pertinent today.
Set in 1957, Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) is an imaginative nine-year-old boy who daydreams of superheroes, alien invasions, and of protecting the homeland from Communist agents. He lives with his single mother (Jennifer Aniston) whom he frequently begs for a pet.  One day, he overhears a fisherman talking about seeing a metal man crashing into the ocean from space. Later, Hogarth finds a trail of crushed trees leading to the power plant near his home. There he finds the giant robot (Vin Diesel) trapped in the electrical wires. Hogarth rescues the robot from electrocution, and discovers the giant has lost its memory. Before long, FBI agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) begins snooping around looking for evidence of the alien threats, or worse Communists, in America. Hogarth seeks help from a beatnik junkyard owner, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.), to help hide The Iron Giant. But with the paranoid government, spooks are closing in, ready to obliterate anything with the potential to oppose America.
I love movies that take place during the Cold War. The McCarthy-era is a fascinating time period when paranoia of threats from other countries was rampant; we were even suspicious of the neighbors we’ve had for years of being Communists. Paranoia itself seems to be the antagonist in The Iron Giant, rather than Mansley, himself. He is a good power-hungry villain, but he genuinely is concerned about the safety and future of America. His fear and paranoia of a Communist invasion has reached unhealthy levels; he simply cannot conceive of a world where robots fall from the sky to do anything other than annihilate America.
The animation is stellar. It’s done in glorious 2D cel animation with beautifully detailed and smooth movement in all the characters. The backgrounds are gorgeous to look at. The Giant is animated with CGI; which looks great for its day. A lot of the art drew inspiration from Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper, and N.C. Wyeth. This gave the movie a classic, even nostalgic feel.
The Iron Giant is also well written. The characters are deep enough to be believable, and the story tackles some touchy subjects. In 1957, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, raising the possibility of nuclear attack from space. This cultivated an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. In one scene we see Hogarth’s class watching an animated film called “Atomic Holocaust,” based on the “Duck and Cover” film shown in schools that offered advice on how to survive if the USSR bombed the USA.
The Iron Giant also has a message of nonviolence. The Giant sees a deer killed by hunters, the naïve robot with memory loss has to have the concept of death explained to him and how guns kill. Hogarth repeatedly tells The Giant throughout the film that “Guns kill” and “You are not a gun.” Fortunately, with the nonviolence theme the military is not demonized in any way. General Rogard (John Mahoney) is actually depicted as being a rational and sympathetic military figure, which contrasts the power-hungry civilian Mansley. There’s also the excellent message of “you are who you choose to be.” It’s not clear what the Giant's purpose is for coming to Earth originally; even the Giant doesn’t know. But he has the ability to be a force of unstoppable destruction, and he is faced with the choice of what to do with that ability. The Iron Giant tells us that peace is very hard work and that killing is the coward’s campaign.
I think the reason The Iron Giant was a box office flop was because Warner Bros didn’t realize what a fantastic movie they had on their hands, and therefore didn’t put much effort into their marketing campaign. I have never heard a single negative thing about The Iron Giant. It tackles some tough issues while remaining engaging, hilarious, and charming. It’s a beautiful animated movie with an outstanding story that is safe for the whole family. The Iron Giant reminds us how mistrust and paranoia can be stopped when everyone decides to lay down their arms and start using their hearts and minds. It reminds us that heroism can come in many forms. I think these are valuable lessons in our post-9/11 world where we are fearful and paranoid of terrorist attacks. I recommend The Iron Giant to anyone of any age. I’ve got a copy on my shelf along with other favorites of mine; it’s worth owning even if you don’t have young kids in your home.

I can think of several Cold War era movies that I enjoyed. X-Men: First Class comes to mind. Can you think of some other good ones? Comment below and tell me why!

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