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The Iron Giant (1999)

by on 2011/05/17

“If we don’t stick up for the kooks, who will?”

* * * * *

A relatively recent product of Warner Bros. studios, The Iron Giant is an incongruous under-the-radar Goliath. It occupies an unusual place in the twilight zone between critically acclaimed commercial flop, sleeper hit, and modern-day cult classic.

It may be more accurate to say the film is the product of author Ted Hughes and director Brad Bird, the industry powerhouse whose repertoire spans The Simpsons and Pixar Studios. As probably my favourite-ever animated feature, I was hesitant to review it for fear of finding any yet-unnoticed fault.

I needn’t have been concerned.

Set in 1957’s autumnal Rockwell, Maine, the story concerns an object fallen to the Earth from deep space. It reveals itself to be a robot (voiced by Saving Private Ryan’s Vin Diesel), the culprit behind a string of mysterious disturbances. Two eventual rivals race to investigate the giant: a sympathetic young boy, Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), and a dangerous government agent, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald).

Along the way, we meet a handful of other characters, including a general (Say Anything’s John Mahoney), Annie Hughes (Office Space’s Jennifer Aniston) and, most notable, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.). This scrap yard artist serves a variety of vital functions, including comic relief, sounding board, sidekick, deus ex machina, and counter-culture flip side to the younger hero’s pop-culture leanings.

McCoppin’s Beatnik obsessions — espresso, jazz, and Jack Kerouac for starters — are just a few of many pieces of Fifties mise-en-scene. Hogarth himself is a proto-geek, with a taste for junk food, comics, and science fiction B-movies. The trappings of his interests underscore the era’s fascination with (and dread of) atomic holocaust, the “Red Menace”, and new technologies.

Even better . . . The Iron Giant isn’t simply set in ’57, it appears as if it were made at the time. Its traditional approach recalls a quainter look and feel, and then seasons it with variety and innovation. We see flashes of contemporary cartoons: a Maypo ad on television, and a Duck and Cover film in a classroom. We see unconventional tricks: the duotone forest at night giving way to flashlit pools of colour, and an underwater world in the wake of a cannonball splash.

What I didn’t realize until after I saw the video was that the title character himself was realized with CGI (computer-generated imagery). I never felt he didn’t fit in, but I wrote in my notes “So smooth!” Not realizing he wasn’t drawn by hand, I assumed an artistic choice was made to avoid “robotic” motion. The absence of mechanical halting and hitching made him seem more anthropomorphic.

Or maybe it’s just me who sees the lead as more than “just” a robot?

At some point after screening Wall-E, I wondered why I’ve reacted divergently to Pixar’s various efforts. Although everyone I knew enjoyed Finding Nemo and Ratatouille, I myself preferred Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Cars. I realized all three shared a common sense of nostalgia. Now I understand The Iron Giant shares this view, a sentiment of valuing times gone by.

And yet I suspect even those without an affection for the Space Age will find a lot to love here. It’s a genuinely affecting work, nearly flawless, and still my favourite.

* * * * *

Rated PG

87 minutes

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  1. Month in Review: May 2011 « Geek vs Goth

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