The Iron Giant (1999)
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Vin Diesel, Harry Conick Jr., Christopher McDonald, Eli Marienthal, John Mahoney
Directed by: Brad Bird
Released by: Warner Bros.
Synopsis: Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) is a boy living in 1950s Maine. Like any typical boy, he loves science-fiction movies. One night, a giant robot monster (Vin Diesel) falls from the sky just a few miles from his house. Soon, a friendship grows just as the fears of a nuclear attack put a small town in danger.
Review: Film history is filled with movies that are simply brilliant in every way possible but for one reason or another they failed to find an audience. The best thing, though, is that when you have a great movie people will eventually find it and thus a legacy is born. The Iron Giant is one of these movies. Released in the summer of 1999, The Iron Giant was a big failure at the box office, due to both the audience feeling indifference towards animated films at the time, and a poor marketing effort on Warner Bros.’s behalf. Those that dared to give the film a chance, however, quickly discovered that what they just saw was more than just a silly animated film. It was a beautiful, moving film featuring some of the best writing seen in an animated film.
Every element of the story has received a lot of tender, loving care. Even if the whole narrative is similar to other “Boy meets alien/animal” plots seen in other movies, The Iron Giant greatly combines a boy’s innocent relationship with a creature from outer space with the paranoia of nuclear war people experienced back in the 1950s. People in that era had a genuine fear of a nuclear weapon attack, and this is seen throughout the film. From the nuclear bomb drill film the characters watch in a scene to the Iron Giant’s arrival being considered a warning from enemy countries, this gives the film a mature atmosphere that never loses its sense of whimsy and wonder.
The other element of the plot that gives the film a lot of power are the relationships between the characters. All of them feel very authentic and honest, once again giving the film depth not seen in any other animated film. As Doug Walker, aka the Nostalgia Critic, expressed in a video once, all of the relationships are subtle but all contribute to the film’s emotional substance. Never do you feel that a character is superfluous to the story. Each one is genuinely affected by the arrival of the Iron Giant, contributing a lot to the already impressive narrative in many ways possible.
The Iron Giant is also a big emotional rollercoaster thanks to its many themes of life, death, conspiracy and even artistic expression. And yet, never does it all feel heavy handed or pretentious. It’s a very fun film that you can watch again and again and never grow tired of. This is because, once more, the movie is very subtle in its execution. You as a viewer know what is going on in the movie but never do you feel uncomfortable watching it or think the creators are forcing you to accept its message. It’s also a very loving tribute to 1950s living as well as classic science fiction, seen in its designs and the movies the characters see. It’s a good example of how a lifestyle or even the entertainment of an era can create a modern tale that becomes timeless in the process.
It moves at a great pace, too! The Iron Giant will take you through its major events quickly, and yet it is slow enough that you get to see how the story and its characters develop. Very rarely does a scene feel redundant and pointless. All of them give us a window into what the character is thinking, never forgetting that it has a very important story to tell.
The voice casting is perhaps one of the best seen in an animated film. Not all of the actors are household names, and yet they give the film many of its strengths. Before he was known as one of the most famous action stars of the last decade, Vin Diesel does the voice of the Iron Giant. As surprisingly as that sounds, he does a really good job with the role, being intimidating and very friendly when he needs to be. Eli Marienthal as Hogarth is great. His performance is true to that of a little boy, evoking a lot of wonder and innocence, but also expressing maturity and wisdom beyond his years. If you allow me to be blunt for a bit, casting Harry Conick Jr. as Dean the junkyard artist was the best decision made concerning this film. Harry Conick Jr. nails the role, always calm, cool and collected, even when he has an iron giant sleeping in his junkyard. You quickly grow to love him the minute you first see him on screen. Jennifer Aniston as Annie Hughes is also very calm, the perfect mother that is stern but is still very warm and caring. Finally, Christopher McDonald as Kent Mansley is a very funny, over the top performance. He perfectly captures the essence of being a paranoid US agent, suspecting everyone and inspiring fear in others. What’s great, though, is that with the rest of the characters being so calm throughout the movie his exuberance stands out like a sore thumb, creating both a hilarious comic relief character as well as a threat to the Iron Giant as well as the town.
The animation is simply stunning, easily rivaling Disney’s best efforts in the 1990s. With the story taking place in Maine, it gives the animators and artists the opportunity to create beautiful forests, quaint towns and inspiring snow scenes. My favorite thing about the animation, though, is the characters themselves. Drawing human characters in animation is always a giant task. Yet the animators in this film achieved the impossible. They created characters that look and act human, yet exist in a very animated reality. Their design is stylized, but never does is manage to disturb or annoy. They move fluidly and convey the film’s complex emotions with flying colors, regardless if the scene is very grand or very moving. The Iron Giant himself is a computer generated element that definitely looks 3D, but blends with the rest of the hand drawn animation effortlessly. His design is also a tribute to the creatures seen in science fiction movies in the 50s, and overall it’s a very pleasing design. It’s a great example of how old techniques can be used with new techniques to create an enthralling animated universe.
Simply put, The Iron Giant is an animated masterpiece that deserved to be discovered and be successful. Its story has depth but it’s very easy to enjoy. It talks about the importance of life and death and how in life it’s you who is in control of your destiny, and yet it never forgets that the best part about childhood was having fun and discovering something exciting each day. The pace is magnificent, the voice talent incredible and the animation very pleasing, warm and colorful. In my honest opinion, The Iron Giant is up there with the likes of Disney’s Fantasia, Snow White and Toy Story as a film that dared to go beyond the boundaries of animation and created a story that delights the heart and touches the soul. Never has being invaded by aliens from outer space been so endearing.
Rating: 5 filmstrips out of 5