Before I say all the wonderful things that need to be said about The Iron Giant, I have a question: Why does every cartoon boy hero have to look like Tom Sawyer? Why does every cartoon mom have to look like Sally Fields? And why don’t any of these cartoon kids ever have dads? Can every studio be convinced the only way to sell an animated film is Boy:White/ Mom:Waitress/ Dad:Fawgeddaboudit? Just wondering.
There are other quibbles about Brad Bird’s first big studio animated feature, but on the whole The Iron Giant is a revelation. It is sentimental without being too terribly sappy. It has the brain-dead American government (that’s always nice). It communicates an important anti-militaristic message. It has a huge, touching monster who can only communicate to a little boy who believes in him (yes, yes, Mr. Spielberg), and it has a surprise character: Dean, the beatnik who owns the metal scrapyard where half is junk and half is art. For once the artist turns out to be intelligent! The Iron Giant turns out to be a pretty cool artist too, but he eats up most of his raw material.
It’s 1957, an age of Red Menace and Sputniks. It was imperative to set the story at this time, and in an out-of-the-mainstream location (Rockville, Maine), because otherwise we would never buy the
implausible ending. Not that we didn’t see it coming. Not that we’re not teary and happy when it does come. Not that we’d change a thing if we could. But if this film were set in Philadelphia in 1999 we’d never believe it. It’s a fable from another time, and it is meant to be that way.
The centerpiece of the film is The Iron Giant himself (voice: Vin Diesel), a huge Go-Bot-like figure who has arrived from an unidentified off-planet source. He, as well as his young finder Hogarth (voice: Eli Marienthal), will have to take the same journey of discovery: to prove they "are what they choose to be." The Giant can be a hero if he likes, although he possesses enough weaponry to wipe out the planet and a big enough appetite to swallow every power grid on the Eastern seaboard. Hogarth, too, may choose to emulate either the good heroes or the evil demons he reads about. As in all stories of this type, good is very good, and evil unambiguously bad. The decisions aren’t hard to make, but both our lead characters must make them.
This film is particularly enjoyable in that it is so unlike Alladin or Tarzan. It’s not quite the Anti-Disney, but the dialogue is more satirical and edgy – more Muppets From Space than Pocahontas. And it is often surprisingly touching, like the moment in the junkyard after the Giant has observed two townspeople shooting a deer. The Giant pokes the deer with his finger, and we grit our teeth expecting him to do an E.T. venison reversal and bring the deer back to life. But Bird wants more than that. Instead we see the saddened Giant return to the junkyard and play absent-mindedly with the hood of an old car, perfectly conveying a beautiful eruption of feelings within him. There are several moments like these which serve to give depth to this film, and to separate The Iron Giant from The Little Mermaid. It is for this reason that we can recommend this film to all children and their parents as well.
Incidentally, this sweet, non-violent, no-sex movie is rated PG because one of the characters says "hell." If you can understand that logic, maybe you can figure out where the Iron Giant came from. We hope he returns again soon.