REVIEW: The Iron Giant [1999]

“Duck and cover”

I finally took the time to see writer/director Brad Bird’s first foray into feature length film with The Iron Giant. Hearing how great of a film it was and the success of his Pixar debut The Incredibles, I’ve been seeing the movie on my shelf for a while now, just waiting to finally be viewed. If you thought his last movie had heart, you need to see this one. While being based on a book, I’m not sure if it is the original source material or Bird’s vision on screen, but the parallels to King Kong are unmistakable. This creature from another world instills fear into all but one person—one person who can see beneath the harsh exterior into the wealth of feelings and compassion bottled up within. Sure the beauty in a story like King Kong is the sacrifice he makes in order to keep his love safe at the unfortunate price of being a monster in the eyes of everyone else, but here we have a kid’s story where happy endings aren’t just a commonality but a necessity. Bird handles the subject matter nicely at the end in order to give the audience the same emotional attachment to the creature despite the fact that the general population does end up seeing him for what he truly is. A la Superman/Spider-Man/etc, the monster mystic soon dissolves as they begin saving human lives.

A big part of The Iron Giant’s success is the gorgeous animation. This may be one of the last great 2D animated films before CGI took over the field. The cinematic touches are great, including a depth of field composed of blurred images to give the audience a focal point. You forgive that the blurring effect renders the object even flatter than the medium does originally because the effect works as it would in a live-action film. Also, the lighting effects are wonderful, especially the flashlight sequences. When our young protagonist looks out his window into the woods, and the light flare goes from bright blind spot to illuminating band of vision, it looks very realistic. The power of the light even dissipates as the flash goes farther out into the distance.

As with The Incredibles, though, the true heart of the film is in the fully fleshed out characters. There is not an overabundance of cluttered supporting roles, but instead a few main roles, which are allowed to evolve and grow an attachment from the viewers. The emotion etched into the movement and facial ticks of the Giant are spectacular at getting language across, much as would have been done in a silent film. Eli Marienthal does a great job as young Hogarth Hughes, the only one who believes that his new friend is more than a weapon. Christopher McDonald adds some nice comic relief as our only villainous role, albeit not a bad guy in the common use of the term, and Jennifer Aniston allows Mrs. Hughes to be both motherly and understanding of her son’s adventures. The vocal star ends up being Harry Connick Jr., who is fantastic as Hogarth’s friend and confidant when it comes to the new discovery of the Giant. I think the best compliment that a film like this can have is the fact that the vocal talent was so good I didn’t recognize any as the people they are in real life. No one tried to infuse their own shtick into the part, but instead played the roles to enhance the story being told.

Along with all that, we are treated to subtle commentary on the state of the government, both with the “duck and cover” absurdity of atomic warfare and the references to gun control and war. These jabs are just that though, small moments that go along with the story, rather than take it over and hijack the film like what happened with Happy Feet last year. Weighty issues can be addressed in children films successfully, making the audience understand the problem yet not shoving it down their throats when the real issue at hand is the relationship between a child and his new otherworldly friend, giving him the confidence to stand up for himself and be a hero.

So far Bird has really impressed me as an animation director. While the teaser for Pixar’s new Ratatouille left me a bit indifferent, just the attachment of this autuer’s name makes me that much more excited for the movie. Hopefully Bird can keep the track record intact and also, maybe prove that in order for these films to be successful, a good story is necessary. In an age where we get around ten animated films a year, there are many that are horrible cashcows to rip off unsuspecting parents into taking the children to a cartoon. Thankfully Brad Bird shows us that animated films can still hold up against live action ones for the pieces of art they should aspire to be.

The Iron Giant 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal)
[2] The Iron Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel)


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