You Are Who You Choose to Be
Last week, Wired ran an article marking the 10th anniversary of the release of Brad Bird's animated feature The Iron Giant (1999). The film, as some of you may know, opened to rave critical reviews and won nine Annie Awards (the animation equivalent of the Academy Awards) yet floundered at the box office, earning only half of its $48 million dollar production budget. The poor box office performance of The Iron Giant, along with the failure of Osmosis Jones (2001) and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), resulted in a scaling back and re-structuring of Warner Brothers Animation. Yet, one company's loss was another's gain as one admirer of the film, Bird's former classmate and computer animation guru John Lasseter, hired Bird to work for Pixar.
While Bird's career has skyrocketed since arriving at Pixar thanks to the success of The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), my favorite film of his remains The Iron Giant. While I enjoy the superhero riff of The Incredibles, I thought paid too much homage to other iconic sequences (the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi for one) and was troubled by its genetic superiority complex. I love Ratatouille, but it never quite lands the ending for me. The Iron Giant, on the other hand, is pure perfection: its message is strong and heartfelt; its craft is economical but extremely effective. One of the only reasons I can ever see myself having children is to show them Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Monster's Inc. (2001), and this film on a rainy afternoon.
The story, for those of you unfortunate readers who have yet to see the film, takes place in Rockwell, Maine in 1957. The United States is in the midst of the Cold War, paranoid about Sputnik revolving above their heads and the beginnings of the counter-culture in the streets. The film, however, only deals with the complexity of these issues through the eyes of a child: a young, adventurous, and comic book loving boy by the name of Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal). Hogarth is a curious boy, constantly bringing home raccoons and squirrels as pets, much to the distaste of his waitress single-mother, Anne (Jennifer Aniston). One night, however, Hogarth discovers a different kind of pet: a giant metal robot (Vin Diesel), who is eating towers at a nearby power station. The Giant's childlike curiosity and hunger causes him to become entwined in electrical wires, becoming electrocuted. Hogarth saves the Giant, befriends him, and tries to teach him about life.
Complications arise when the Giant's actions rise the suspicion of the locals, who call in government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) to investigate. Mansley rents a room in the Hughes household, suspecting that Hogarth knows more about the Giant than he's letting on, Mansley fears that the Giant has been sent by the Soviets to destroy the United States and wants the military to intervene. Hogarth, aware of Mansley's intentions, hides the Giant at a nearby junkyard, run by a beatnik artist named Dean (Harry Connick Jr.). Together, the duo tries to make sense of the Giant's background and his mysterious arrival.
Now, this review will start to drift towards spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film, I urge you to stop reading, take 80 minutes, and watch it. Go ahead, I'll wait. [Checks watch after 80 minutes or so.] All done? Well, I bet you loved every minute of it. Now you can read ahead!
As viewers have undoubtedly noticed, the background of the Giant provides the bulk of the film's drama and its ultimate message. When the Giant arrives, he has a massive dent in his metallic cranium and has forgotten his true function. He is essentially the robotic equivalent to John Locke's tabula rasa. While Hogarth and Dean discover that the Giant does indeed have the capacity to cause great harm, the Giant, influenced by Hogarth's life lessons regarding topics such as weapons and the soul, has free will. Will he embody Hogarth's favorite comic book villain Atomo, the Soviet killing machine, or Hogarth's favorite hero, Superman? As the Giant becomes hunted by the paranoid society around him, he becomes tempted to follow the path of Atomo but, upon Hogarth's urging, chooses a noble life. The Giant is, as he says, "not a gun."
The success and originality of the film ultimately come from Hogarth's teachings, which is what makes the Giant's sacrifice during the third-act so incredibly affecting. I've seen the film five or six times during the past few years and I know that the film's tragedy will ultimately be met with that perfect glimpse of the Giant re-assembling himself in Iceland, but I cannot help but bawl my eyes out every time. This emotional reaction is not only stems from the film's narrative, but in the way Bird direction as well. Take, for example, the emotional exchange between Hogarth and the Robot before he flies into space and intersects the falling nuclear warhead:
GIANT: I...fix. HOGARTH: Giant? GIANT: Hogarth, you stay. I go. [He lovingly taps Hogarth's with his massive metal figure tip and shakes his head.] No following. HOGARTH: I love you.
The Giant then flies into the air and, assuming the pose of Superman, smiles as he saves his friend and the fearful citizens of Rockwell from nuclear annihilation.
This moment ties together so many moments in the film in an economic way: the dialogue exchanged mirrors that of Hogarth telling the Giant to stay in the woods at the beginning of the film and the Giant assumes his true identity as a superhero, via his own actions. The voice-acting between the amazing Eli Marienthal and Vin Diesel, in perhaps his best performance (and I'm not saying that to slight Diesel, he's making the most of difficult role and the results are incredibly touching) amplifies the Giant's sacrifice, which of course finds a perfect visual accompaniment in the film's beautiful cel animation.
I've just realized that I've slighted a discussion of the film's animation. This, of course, is not an indication of it being of poor quality. On the other hand, it is so well crafted that I often found myself forgetting that I'm watching an animated film. The overall production design has the aesthetic essence of a 1950's comic book with regard to its color schemes and the design of the Giant is exactly what you would expect if someone said "a robot from 1957." Let's take a moment to examine supreme craft behind the character design of the Giant: he's a metal robot, the essence of his mechanical construction does not entail the ability to express emotion of any kind as his voice is a metallic monotone and he has no eyebrows or facial muscles to express happiness or sadness. Yet, against all odds, Bird and his team are able to extract a lot of feeling from his simple features. For instance, his eyes flutter when he becomes tired or slightly narrow their shutters when he becomes angry, his mouth joint begins to open when he's happy. The design is incredibly understated, but extremely effective.
In close, I don't think I could think of a criticism of The Iron Giant if I tried. Granted, I don't have children and could not testify as to what age of audience this would be most appropriate for. I would assume that specific moments could come off as rather scary to a young kid, such as when Mansley interrogates Hogarth, so that might make Giant far from ideal for certain viewers. Yet, that is not a criticism of the film's narrative or craft; it's simply a disclaimer to parents. The film is perfect and proudly stands amongst my favorite films of all-time. The story (based off poet Ted Hughes' novel), the animation, and voice acting are all flawless. Happy 10th birthday Giant. I love you, too.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.