The (Emotional) Wrecking Crew
The other night, I realized a dream--a majorly minor dream, but a dream nonetheless: I finally saw The Iron Giant on the big screen. Like so many people who could have saved the film from flopping on initial release, I didn't catch Brad Bird's 2D masterpiece until it hit home video. But thanks to a two-night revival at Chicago's Patio Theatre, the film's scale and invention came to greater life for me than ever before.
Essentially a 1950's-set remake of E.T., The Iron Giant tells the story of Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), a latchkey kid who discovers that a several-hundred-foot-tall alien robot has crash-landed in the woods near his town. The only person he can trust with this secret is a beatnik artist named Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), who offers the giant sanctuary in his junk yard. Following up on satellite reports and eyewitness accounts is ultra-paranoid federal agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), who'll stop at nothing to destroy what he believes to be either an alien or communist menace.
Bird and co-writer Tim McCanlies (working from Ted Hughes' book) deliver a perfect blend of comedy, drama, and old-fashioned adventure. Hogarth's world doesn't fit pop culture's typical ideas of the era; he has no friends or father, and his mom (Jennifer Aniston) constantly works double shifts at the local diner to make ends meet. The threat of nuclear annihilation permeates his life, from overheard town gossip to TV shows and comic books about irradiated brain monsters. True, The Iron Giant looks like a cute nostalgia trip, but Bird and company infuse their story with enough unsettling background details to suggest a far more adult story.
Into this mix comes the giant (Vin Diesel), a metal-eating innocent who learns to communicate by imitating Hogarth. In a refreshing twist, we don't get an origin story--only a pre-climax revelation that beneath the kind-eyed, sleek exterior lurks an arsenal of futuristic killing machines that overreacts to the sight of weaponry. This paves the way for a pretty unique kids' movie lesson: Hogarth, taking a cue from Dean's Espresso-enhanced Zen philosophy, tells the giant, "You are what you choose to be".
Though I've seen the movie at least six times in the last decade, the climax never fails to choke me up. The giant's bond with Hogarth and Dean leads to a touching, beautifully conceived moment of sacrifice that's as powerful as any bit of live-action drama. Where many cartoons go for bombastic showdowns, The Iron Giant culminates in a moment of quiet panic and quick decisions; it's a testament to Bird's and McCanlies' skills that they perfectly balance a bone-chilling doomsday scenario with humor and heart-tugging.
One thing I noticed this time around is how jarring it is to see 2D animation nowadays. Most big-screen animated releases are CG, and even most children's TV programming has moved in that direction. In the last few years, I've been on a steady diet of Pixar (and Disney's attempts to become Pixar). It's all very impressive, but watching the scene in which the giant cannonballs into a lake and washes Dean away in his folding chair is a stark reminder that these things were once drawn by hand.
I don't mean to put down computer animators, but the trade-off of most films now being "made in the computer" is a diminishing of the How'd-They-Do-It factor. At a certain point, the audience takes for granted that the tech wizards behind a movie can make anything happen--which can make the extraordinary seem ordinary. But solid, traditional animation--in the right hands--wows every time.
Case in point: the giant is actually a 3D-animated character that's been shaded to look like his 2D co-stars. For the most part, the technique blends well--it's a bit wonky, but nothing so distracting that people will be pulled out of the movie. However, in the late-picture transformation scene, where the giant's big guns come out, the late-90s CG becomes a bit more glaring. Fortunately, the form and function of the weapons are so out-there that they contribute to the "alien" quality of the animation (the same can't be said for the animated ocean waves in the beginning and end of the film, which, by today's standards, practically look like unfinished effects).
These are just some things you may notice, and should in no way subtract from your enjoyment of this wonderful film. This is still my favorite film of Bird's, as it feels the most personal. The reality he paints here is so vivid, it's as if he'd lived the story and retained enough to retell it precisely; in a way, The Iron giant is also like Stand By Me--but with a big, metal Martian and three less messed-up kids. Even if you didn't grow up in the 50s surrounded by secrets and danger, chances are you'll appreciate the breadth and honesty of the storytellers' hearts.