The Birthday Series – The Iron Giant (1999)
I’m not really a huge fan of animated films. Apart from Pixar and Aardman I don’t actively seek them out. Don’t get me wrong, there are some wonderful animated films out there, but for the most part they don’t do that much for me. For this reason, this is the first time I’ve seen ‘The Iron Giant’.
It’s 1957 and the cold war is trucking along quite nicely. The Russian satellite Sputnick has just been launched and America is anxiously looking to the skies. Off the coast of Maine something crashes into the ocean. It’s a gigantic robot from outer space that feeds on metal. 9 year old Hogarth (Eli Marienthal), who lives with his single mum (Jennifer Aniston), befriends the robot after he saves it from electrocution when it tries to eat a power plant. But with a government stooge hanging around asking questions, where do you hide a hundred foot tall robot?
“The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff. How far he had walked? Nobody knows. Where he had come from? Nobody knows. How he was made? Nobody knows.”
– Ted Hughes, “The Iron Man”
‘The Iron Giant’ is a “delightful” little film. It’s a very basic story of friendship, with some easily recognisable themes about “you are whatever you choose to be”. There’s echoes of ‘ET’ in the sense that a boy befriends a unearthly being and must hide him from the government nasties.
The performances by the voice actors are excellent. Marienthal (who was Stifler Jr in the ‘American Pie’ films) is terrific, lending Hogarth that childish wonder and enthusiasm for just about anything. Aniston and Harry Connick Jr, as the junkyard owning artist that helps to hide the robot, are good as well. And Christopher McDonald is great as the villainous CIA goon Kent Mansley who’s paranoia endangers the whole town. An unrecognisable Vin Diesel is the voice of the Iron Giant and John Mahoney has a small role as the Army General who mistakenly believes Mansley’s stories.
Based on the novel “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes, the screenplay by Tim McCanlies alters the tale slightly. The novel saw some sort of enormous creature (my memory is vague so correct me where I go wrong) attack earth, and The Iron Man protected us. Changing the setting from rural England to Maine, McCanlies plays up the Cold War paranoia aspects of the story. He also makes the robot into an actual weapon, one that transforms into (many) guns when it’s defence is triggered. The government (deceiving the Army) is the enemy here, which makes it a more relevant story for older American audiences, but I doubt that the target audience will have been able to understand quite what the story entailed. But no doubt that will matter nought, because the themes of friendship and loyalty will be more recognisable, and there is a certain element of wonder watching this giant robot simply walking amongst the forest. And there are certain scenes, such as when a deer is shot and killed by hunters, that boldly teach the audience about death. It’s unusual for themes such as these to appear in a childrens animated film.
This is the feature length début of director Brad Bird, who went on to make the brilliant superhero film ‘The Incredibles’ and the wonderful ‘Ratatouille’. The Iron Giant has some excellent use of traditional line animation. The characters are basic, but clearly defined and always believably natural. And there’s a scene in the film where Hogarth is wandering through the forest at night searching with his flashlight. The realistic way the flashlight is animated was really quite impressive. Bird is (currently) attached to ‘Mission Impossible IV’, which will be his live-action début. It’s not a film I’d have wanted him to make. Not that it can’t be good. Just that I’d rather he not do a third sequel to a tired franchise. But hopefully that will lead to better, more interesting films in the future.
Thanks for coming! This has been my 1999 party. Drink up. Time to leave now. The ugly lights are on!
For Droids a jolly good fellow!