Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

The Iron Giant

Grade : A+ Year : 1999 Director : Brad Bird Running Time : 1hr 26min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

“The Iron Giant” is quite a feature-length debut for Brad Bird, and ended up only being the calm before the storm for the director of “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol.” The truth of the matter, though, is that anyone familiar with Bird’s work for “The Simpsons” and the beloved “Family Dog” could have seen it coming a mile away. Bird is not only a great animator, but a smart storyteller, understanding that story is more important than even the visuals he’s creating on the screen.

“Iron Giant” was adapted by Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanlies from the book by Ted Hughes, and it’s a simple enough tale. It’s 1957, and the Russians have just launched Sputnik into orbit. The Cold War is at it’s peak level of anxiety about atomic annihilation, and the educational films about how to survive nuclear blasts are alive and well. In a small town in Maine, we meet Hogarth (Eli Marienthal), who is a bit of an outcast with his classmates, and his mother, Annie (Jennifer Aniston), who is a waitress at a local diner. Their lives are about to be changed forever when a giant metal visitor (Vin Diesel), who has a hunger for metal himself, lands in their small town, and forms a bond with Hogarth. In the paranoia of the ’50s, however, the Iron Giant is anything but welcome, and plays into the fears of the time. But like E.T., this otherworldly visitor has a young ally that might be able to help calm the anxieties of the community around them.

This is my first time seeing “Iron Giant” in many years, and man, it really hit me in the gut. This is a wonderful piece of family filmmaking, the likes of which we often don’t see anymore, although actually, I thought a lot about Disney’s recent “Big Hero 6” while watching some of the interactions between Hogarth and Iron Giant. This is a truly special film, and I wish people making family films would return to the type of formula perfected in films like this and “E.T.” instead of just making comedies featuring celebrity voices that happen to be cartoons. “Iron Giant” comes from a more personal place, and is less about making a killing at the box-office, and more about making an emotional connection with the viewer. Bird did the same thing in “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” but there’s a down-to-Earth quality about the story of “The Iron Giant” that really brings it home on an emotional level. This isn’t about clever ideas or tapping into popular trends, but telling a heartwarming, intelligent story in a way that engages audiences, and inspiring a sense of awe in them. The film was a failure at the box-office at the time, but it’s since garnered a devoted following, and is one of the artistic high points, if not the high point, in an animation year that included no less than “Toy Story 2,” “Tarzan” and “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” I completely understand why.

Since the rise of CG-animation houses such as Pixar, Dreamworks’s PDI and Fox’s Blue Sky the past 15 years, the art of hand-drawn feature animation has been relegated to the work of Japanese and Korean studios and independent studios. This is a tragedy for American audiences, and while CG-animation has produced several great films, there’s something about the pencil-to-paper quality of hand-drawn lines, and the coloring that comes from ink and paint, that leaves a deep impression on the senses. Bird was one of the very best in this medium, although he certainly adapted effortlessly to CG when he collaborated with Pixar. That makes “The Iron Giant,” which has a lovely score by the late Michael Kamen, the relic of what feels like a lost art of American cinema. Plenty of people still work in hand-drawn images, to be sure, but the days of a film made in the medium being a huge drawn for American audiences, driving the creation of more of them, is gone, and even when “Iron Giant” was about to be released, the film was almost a victim of being relegated to direct-to-video release before bloggers turned it into a cause to get behind. I’m grateful they did, because if it had only been direct-to-video, who knows how long it would have been before American moviegoers discovered the greatness that is Brad Bird, and what he can bring to the world of animation.

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