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Dissecting the Classics – The Iron Giant

December 28, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Happy holiday season, everyone! This is the last column of the year and much like last year, I wanted to end things by talking about one of my favorite animated movies. Last year we looked at Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Spirited Away, but this year we’re looking an overlooked gem from an american animated studio. And yeah, I’d be lying if I didn’t say the main reason I was inspired to look back at it is because of Bumblebee, which clearly draws some inspiration from it.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Iron Giant

Wide Release Date: August 6, 1999
Directed By: Brad Bird
Written By: Tim McCanlies & Brad Bird
Produced By: Allison Abbate & Des McAnuff
Cinematography By:
Edited By: Darren T. Holmes
Music By: Michael Kamen
Production Company: Warner Bros. Feature Animation
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Picture
Eli Marienthal as Hogarth Hughes
Jennifer Aniston as Annie Hughes
Christopher McDonald as Kent Mansley
Harry Connick, Jr. as Dean McCoppin
Vin Diesel as The Iron Giant

What Do We All Know?

The 1990s were a good time to be alive if you were into cartoons, and as a child of the 1990s, I definitely was. I grew up on a steady diet of Disney animated classics, but while those were the most successful movies of the time period, they were far from the only quality ones to come out. Studio Ghibli was starting to make strides in the U.S. thanks to various distribution deals, Pixar was just starting up as was DreamWorks animation, two powerhouses of the 21st century. But then there was Warner Bros. Despite owning one of the most recognizable brands in cartoon history (the Looney Tunes), they never could seem to catch up with Disney, mostly because they tried too hard to replicate it. (See also: Fox Animation). They either banked hard on films that were pretty unmemorable (The Pagemaster and Quest for Camelot), or didn’t go in hard enough on things that were actually great, like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

But their biggest marketing misfire was the film we are covering today: The Iron Giant. I saw this movie in theaters because the only thing I loved more than cartoons was cartoons about giant robots from space, but the movie mostly went by unnoticed by a public who were oversaturated with children’s entertainment and were taking their kids to see Tarzan. But the movie was noticed by critics, who heaped praise onto the film as a smarter, more sincere breed of animated film that was, if not necessarily better, very different from every other animated film that was coming out in the same time frame. Were the critics right, or was Warner Bros. right to assume the film would fall flat on its face? Today, we’re going to take a look at the film and determine if it deserves the adulation of both critics and audiences.

What Went Right?

To recap, The Iron Giant is really a pretty simple movie. There’s a giant robot from space who crash lands on earth, he’s discovered by a precocious kid named Hogarth, and they start to become friends when Hogarth saves the giant from electrocution at a power plant. Hogarth spends most of the movie trying to figure out how to take care of his metal-eating friend while also hiding him from the small town that he lives in. This turns out to be a well-founded fear as self-important government agent Kent Mansley is investigated the unexplained incidents going in the town and is determined to find the giant and destroy it. Going into more exact details would be spoilers, and if you haven’t seen the film, I just can’t bring myself to spoil it. Please, watch the movie first, it’s a great family movie and it deserves to be experienced with as little information as possible.

The Iron Giant owes much to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial in terms of its structure and its execution. It’s a movie about a boy and his alien friend, but instead of an adorable goblin creature it’s an enormous metal man who likes to eat cars and seems to be suffering from amnesia. Hogarth is a lovable kid, the kind of curious, smart but awkward and just mildly self-indulgent kid who feels like an audience avatar for the pre-teen sci-fi geeks who would be dragging their parents to the theater. (Me, for example.) His relationship with the Giant is the #1 reason why this film works. It starts almost like a kid getting a new pet, only to realize that the robot is quite intelligent and capable of forming thoughts and ideas about the world, and he becomes a close friend. I also enjoy his dynamic with his overworked mother and his friendship with beatnik junk artist Dean, and I absolutely love the combative relationship he has with Mansley.

While the human characters are fleshed out and do the majority of the talking, this movie would not have worked if the Giant didn’t work. Fortunately, the Giant is just about as perfect as animated characters get. He’s got an iconic presence, his animation is nuanced and expressive, and Vin Diesel’s vocal performance gets across both the childlike innocence and the needed gravitas. What’s even more impressive is that the Giant is a computer animated character in a film that is mostly hand-drawn, and yet somehow never manages to be too jarring. I really love the idea of giving the robot amnesia – unlike humans, a robot is programmed for a specific purpose, but what if it can’t remember that purpose? Watching the Giant learn about the world and decide who it wants to be is very compelling, and it’s impossible not to feel for the emotions the robot goes through. Also, the slow reveal of what the Giant was created to be is really well done, and sets up an extremely powerful finale.

Aside from the two central characters, I think where the movie is most successful is in its presentation and its theming. The film has a strong sense of time and place, namely small town Maine in the late 1950s. Sputnik has been launched, Hogarth reads Superman comics and watches cheesy sci-fi, cold war paranoia is starting to ramp up, and we’ve got an exceptional cool beatnik who makes art out of the trash in his junkyard. The sense of the extraordinary happening in the real world is palpable, and enhanced by the lack of Disney-like elements such as musical numbers, talking animals or magic. Feeling like a real place helps the movie resonate emotionally, and it certainly does that. The main theme is about agency and self-actualizing, being who you choose to be instead of what the powers that be made or want you to be. It’s also about overcoming fear in order to make friends, learn new ideas, and to grow as people.

What Went Wrong?
In terms of the actual movie, I don’t have any complaints. The Iron Giant is one of my favorite movies ever made and there’s just nothing wrong with it in my view. So we’re going to go a different route and look at something more interesting this time: why was such a cool movie, a film that appeals equally to children and adults and a critical darling such a commercial failure? Well, it’s because Warner Bros. failed to see the potential of what Brad Bird was making and didn’t capitalize. The movie didn’t have cute animal sidekicks, catchy pop songs or an all-star cast. It’s not overly funny, it’s not saturated in color, and it basically just breaks the mold of what was making money for animated movies in the 1990s. Oh, and they were also scared after Quest for Camelot, one of the most blatant rip-offs of the Disney style ever, had bombed the previous year.

The Iron Giant fell short in the box office because nobody in power knew how to market a wholesome, intelligent movie that respected the minds of both children and their parents. Fortunately, the film has become more widely seen thanks to cable syndication: Cartoon Network had a particular habit of doing 24 hour marathons of the film for Independence Day and Thanksgiving. The movie has been vindicated by time and television, and is rightfully recognized as one of the greatest animated films of its era.

And In Summary…

In case you skipped the bulk of the analysis or just didn’t get the subtle hints: The Iron Giant is phenomenal and absolutely deserving of its praise. I love this movie, I loved it as a kid but I love it even more as an adult. The film is almost unassuming, avoiding the in-your-face style of most other animated movies and instead telling a low key, heartfelt and intelligent story with memorable characters and a gangbuster of a message. If you haven’t seen it yet or it’s been a long time since you have, it’s time to remedy that situation because this movie is a certified classic. I’ll see you all in 2019.

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Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Citizen Kane, Mary Poppins, Christmas Vacation

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