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The Iron Giant is movie I knew very little about until it was brought to my attention recently. I knew I had heard of the movie before, but even those memories are extremely vague. It may have been featured in a preview for a VHS or DVD I watched in the early 2000’s. When it is discussed nowadays, it is usually attributed to being an animation masterpiece which has a massive cult following. So, being the animation lover that I am, why am I not as familiar with this film? Well, for one thing, this movie was released by Warner Bros., a studio whose animated films toward the end of the 20th century were known for being mediocre or just plain bad. It also released in the late 90’s, a time when Disney essentially monopolized the animation industry. This movie was likely swept under the rug by most viewers, as it didn’t receive any box office success.
It is easy to say I went into this movie with a completely open mind, with one exception: Brad Bird’s name on the poster. Anyone who knows Brad Bird knows he is an animation miracle worker. With that, I was really excited.
What surprised me the most about The Iron Giant was how laughably simple the story is. A mysterious object from outer-space lands on earth, which turns out to be a massive "Iron Giant". It crash-lands off the coast of rural Maine, where it is discovered by a boy named Hogar. Hogar immediately befriends the Giant, but quickly learns he’ll need to hide it from the rest of his town, and a government agent who wants to see it destroyed. The rest of the film is just that: Hogar tries to corral the Giant into a hiding place while trying to outrun the government, and eventually the military, so they don’t blow it high and dry.
This story has been done a thousand times before. It is essentially E.T. meets any 1950’s alien invasion/giant monster movie. But, what makes it work is just how much effort is put into it. Everything from the writing, the characters, the animation; it all pieces together to make a well crafted film that is a love-letter to classic movie tropes while managing to become a classic in and of itself.
The biggest reason this story is so well handled is the emotion it manages to express with such simple characters and writing. The characters in this movie are so lovable and enjoyable to watch. Hogar is a typical kid who gets really moody but has a good heart. There is a beatnik he hangs out with who is really fun. His mom is really fun. There is the government agent who acts like he knows what he’s doing, but really he just wants approval from his boss and is willing to be a total asshole in order to get it. It is the breed of a perfect villain you just love to hate. But where the film really shines is the Giant itself. The Giant has such a range of emotion for a big hunk of metal. The way he moves, uses facial expressions, and subtly shares his feelings can be really heartwarming or heartbreaking. Centered around the Giant and Hogar is a real emotional struggle which deals with some heavy issues, especially for an animated movie. Hogar has conversations with the Giant about topics like death, the afterlife, and the idea of a soul, if people have them.
What makes this movie most unique is hands-down the animation. It has a distinct design where I could look at any screenshot and say, "That’s The Iron Giant." All the colors are subdued, it uses very smooth lines, and has an overall dark art style for a whimsically spirited animated movie. The way the characters move feels so natural and human. What they absolutely nail is the lighting effects; this has some of the best lighting effects in an animated film I’ve ever seen. You see, The Iron Giant was made in a time when traditional animation was dying out, but was also making a ton of innovations. Some could argue, however, that this animation style is a bit dated. It combines a lot of CG with 2D animation. This was early CG, so the final product doesn’t always flow together. But, the clash is really what gives the film such a unique look. It isn’t necessarily trying to be a spectacle, rather innovate and tell a great story; all the more reason why this movie has gained such a cult following.
The film as a whole also takes full advantage of its setting. This movie is a love-letter to 1950’s nostalgia, both in film, popular culture and small-town vibes. There’s an ambient feeling of the atomic age, the characters have a total hatred for the Russians, and the entire conspiracy of the Giant lends itself to the question of whether we are alone in the universe, a hot topic during the era.
Despite very cartoony animation, I was surprised at how the film has a very adult spirit. The voice actors in this film do an outstanding job, like they are really acting in the roles of these characters. It feels like genuine acting, like the cartoon characters have a life to themselves and aren’t just moving drawings. The dialogue is also very adult for an animated film, but can be extremely funny at times. Some of the dialogue I imagine would completely go over a little kid’s head, but it also goes to show why this movie has stuck with people for so long. I could easily see teenagers and adults putting this on and having a good time with it.
It’s safe to say I’ve gone long enough without seeing The Iron Giant, so I was glad I finally gave it a watch. There are so many films like it which had a ton of effort put into them, but simply didn’t get enough attention. Thankfully the Internet and the availability of movies on digital are allowing films like these to be rediscovered and gain a cult following years later. Overall, I feel the film is fantastic. It was refreshing to see a traditionally animated movie done in a different style by a different studio that really shines. The characters are great, it takes full advantage of a simple story, and radiates an adult vibe while discussing important mature issues; I would even go as far to say it handles the adult tone better than most of Pixar’s films (I say most!). Regardless, if you’re like me and haven’t seen this movie, definitely give it a watch. It’s time well spent on an overlooked piece of animation goodness.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2017