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It’s been said that a truly successful work for children should also appeal to adults since adults were once children themselves. The work has to tap into something and must be more than simply entertaining: It needs to ignite some carefully preserved atavistic emotional tinder in one’s adult soul. The Iron Giant did that for me when I first saw it in Austin, Texas, the weekend it premiered. But that day I shared my popcorn with a tumbleweed; the theater was empty, which was a damn shame because The Iron Giant made me giddy and made me think. It’s the perfect storm of story and talent, where inspiration and artistry take hold of pretty good material, perform some esoteric creative alchemy, and transform it into the stuff of joyous legend.
The animated film only vaguely resembles its source, Ted Hughes’ delightfully strange novel about the battle between a gigantic automaton and a bat from space. But unlike too many movies adapted from books, the radical reworking of the novel isn’t a slap in the face to its author. Instead, it’s like an honest reinterpretation of a fable, as if the story of the book was being retold by a kid who once heard it as a bedtime story but couldn’t help embellishing it with his own enthusiasms.
Our hero is Hogarth Hughes, a lonely, imaginative boy struggling to get attention from his loving but overworked mother. The setting is small-town coastal Maine in the late ’50s, post-Sputnik, when Space Age hope and Red Scare paranoia commingle in the air. Into Hogarth’s life comes a fellow outsider, one that just happens to be an interstellar metal colossus crash-landed on Earth. First-time feature director and writer Brad Bird had already proven he could make animated stories hilarious and subversive—but still appeal to kids—with his work on The Simpsons. Here he makes a story about the bond between a young boy and an iron giant an emotional, intelligent, funny, and suspenseful visual feast that’s its own unique creation, yet also a tribute to ’80s-era Spielberg; tear-jerking “a boy and his dog” stories; and drive-in sci-fi monster B-movies.
But the relationship between Hogarth and the giant is the true heart of the film. These two kindred souls form a bond that’s beyond brotherhood, a tie that’s tested when it’s revealed the Giant is actually a weapon that our government wants destroyed. Inspired by our best and brightest (Hogarth and his collection of Superman comics), the giant is then shown to make choices that are more moral than some of the humans in its midst. Vin Diesel is rightly famous for his ability to infuse the Giant’s sparse dialogue with heartbreaking pathos, especially the pivotal “I am not a gun” line; the rest of the cast, including Jennifer Aniston as Hogarth’s mom and Harry Connick, Jr. as a sympathetic beatnik, inhabit their roles with the comfort of character actors at the top of their game. Above and beyond that, though, the film is simply an eye-popping spectacle, filled with emotional and thrilling action sequences. And the lushness of its setting and its stellar character design, combined with the majesty of the giant, elicit true “wow gee-whiz!” wonder. It couldn’t be anything BUT an animated film; it’s a true exemplar of the form itself.
After The Iron Giant, Brad Bird went on to make The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and everything that makes those films brilliant for both kids and adults is also here. But that Monday in 1999, after the film’s opening, the future might’ve looked pretty bleak: The Iron Giant was a flop, the proverbial lead zeppelin. And the movie’s “failure” triggered an empathetic response in me that I can summon to this day, because what Bird and his crew had wrought was so charming, so sad and beautiful, so lovely and thrilling, that I wanted to be able to look them all in the eyes and say, “Don’t listen to ANYBODY who tries to tell you what’s ‘wrong’ with your film. You achieved something almost impossible: You transcended and made something for the AGES.” And I still feel that way to this day.
BONUS CUT: The soundtrack to the Iron Giant was a smartly chosen mix of ’50s hits that captured the era without leaning on the same ol’ oldies. From be-bop to pop, we put all the songs featured in the film in one handy playlist.