Saturday, December 6, 2014

Review: The Iron Giant (1999)

The Iron Giant (1999)

Rated PG for fantasy action and mild language


The Iron Giant is the best film that Pixar never made. A funny, smart, and touching ode to '50s sci-fi B movies, watching it today is like watching many of the films from Pixar's '00s golden age in embryo. Between its gorgeous visual design and its great characters and writing, it's up there with some of the best science fiction movies, children's movies, and animated movies of its time, and it's the sort of film that both adults and their kids can enjoy and watch over and over again. It did not deserve to be left forgotten at the box office when it first came out, but it certainly did deserve the home-video success and massive cult following that emerged around it in the years afterwards -- a cult following that I now proudly count myself a part of -- as well as the discovery of its director Brad Bird by, surprise surprise, Pixar (he went on to make The Incredibles and Ratatouille).

The film takes place in the small town of Rockwell, Maine in 1957, right after the launch of Sputnik provoked paranoia in Americans afraid of what now watched over them. One night, during a storm, a giant alien robot crash-lands on Earth, where he's first discovered by a young boy named Hogarth Hughes. Initially scared of the creature, Hogarth slowly forms a bond with him, helping him hide in a junkyard operated by the beatnik artist Dean where he has a near-unlimited supply of food (he eats metal). Here, Hogarth teaches the Giant human language and morals from his comic books, while trying to hide his escapades from his mother, who is none the wiser. Meanwhile, the seemingly bumbling G-man Kent Mansley is in town to follow up on reports of something crashing down to Earth, and it doesn't take him long to find his way to Hogarth's house, where he suspects that the boy knows something. Hogarth, Dean, and the Giant must work together to outwit Mansley and prevent the government from going to war with something that can easily cause a great deal of death and destruction before it goes down.

Right away, the most readily apparent feature that this film has going for it is its visuals. Working with both hand-drawn and computer animation that flow together seamlessly, Brad Bird and the artists here created a world that is one part the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and one part the poster for Them!. It goes together amazingly well; whether the film is recreating iconic '50s Americana (be it a malt shop, a "Duck and Cover" instructional video, or a monster movie on TV) or having the Giant battle the military, it looks and feels cohesive, with nary a frame out of place. Even today, it still holds up on a purely technical level, as I noticed only two minor mistakes in the animation, and the art design went a long way towards making up for it and making this world look downright beautiful. I felt like I was in the '50s watching this. Nearly any shot in this film could've been put on the poster and framed in movie theaters across the country.

But beauty alone is not what makes this film. Sure, it helps that it looks really good, but if that's all it takes to make a classic movie, then I would've given Interstellar a perfect score last month. No, The Iron Giant is also one of the most well-written family films I've ever seen, thanks in no small part to its amazing cast of characters. Hogarth is a great protagonist, a smart kid who still feels like a kid rather than an adult's idea of what an adolescent boy is like, teaching the Giant how to behave like a human being and helping him hide from the grown-ups the only way he knows how: through comic books. The Giant, for his part, straddles the fine line between alien and human, acting much like a child himself as he struggles to grasp the subtleties of the English language and human emotion. Voice actors Eli Marienthal and Vin Diesel (yes, that Vin Diesel, before he became an action hero) bring the two of them to life amazingly, but they're not alone. Jennifer Aniston may not have much range beyond variations on Rachel Green, but as Hogarth's mother, she brings a nice sweetness to the role, while Harry Connick Jr. as Dean shows us the other side of the '50s: the "bad boy" who's probably the smartest person in the whole town, his fascination with Beat art and literature making him something of an outcast. Last but certainly not least, there's Christopher McDonald as Kent Mansley, the film's antagonist, a man who is precisely the sort of doofus he appears to be at first glance... which gets taken in horrifying directions as his personality flaws threaten to cause a disaster. If this film had a single flaw, it's that he's not in the first half all that much, making his emergence as the "villain" (for lack of a better term) in the second act seem fairly sudden. (Then again, we got some great character development for Hogarth and the Giant out of the opening, so I can't fault it too much.) He's the sort of bad guy you can't help but pity -- he's so blinded by fear that he virtually loses all capacity for rational thought, mistaking the Giant for a monster. Him getting told by the general during the climax just how deep he's dug everyone was precisely the moment when I knew that this film was a classic.

And that is the core of what makes The Iron Giant so great. Not only is it gorgeous, not only does it have great characters with great voice actors behind them, but it's amazingly intelligent, driving its themes home without hammering us over the head with them. The feel of its '50s world comes from more than just the visuals -- we see both the good from that time period, like its sense of community values, its goofy-but-endearing pop culture, and its idealism and belief in progress, and the bad, like the repressed social mores exemplified by Dean's rebellion, and the Cold War paranoia that drives Mansley insane. It reminded me of why, on an intellectual level, I wouldn't want to live in the '50s, but also why, on an emotional level, I kind of would. Most of all, however, it takes its look at the '50s and uses it to speak to the present more than anything. It's a film about how our fear and distrust of "the other" can do far more damage than anything, and how we should learn to embrace and understand our differences, told in a manner far more deft than any number of "adult" dramas.

Oh, and if you're looking for big laughs and robot mayhem? This film has that too! It's nothing too raunchy or violent (a laxative joke and the Giant shooting at tanks is about as bad as it gets), but this film still has a very goofball sense of humor, not realizing that he's not as small as Hogarth is, while the lengths Hogarth goes to to hide the Giant always made me laugh. And while the action is pretty thin compared to many sci-fi blockbusters, when it gets rolling in the third act it feels just as intense as those movies, even if goes a bit further out of its way to avoid showing deaths. That's not to say that the Giant feels weak -- unlike many animated films, the threat of death is always there, especially in one great scene that I couldn't dare to spoil.

Score: 5 out of 5

If you're a child of the '90s, you already knew that score was coming. The Iron Giant deserves to be ranked next to many of Disney's Renaissance classics as one of the greatest animated films of the last twenty-five years. It's smartly written with a great message, it has great characters and beautiful visuals, and even underneath all that, it's still an entertaining, light-hearted sci-fi movie that everybody can, and should, enjoy.

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