In 1999, we had fully embraced the future of animation. Toy Story and A Bug’s Life had already put Pixar on the map and Toy Story 2 was due out before y2k forced us to recreate all computer technology (or not). Because not only were fully computer-animated movies coming out (in addition to the Pixar collection, Antz was another fairly celebrated film and the first Shrek was just on the horizon), they had good stories. They had celebrity voices. They had the backing of major studios who were turning what was once known as kid’s movies into a behemoth the whole family could enjoy and pay full price admission for.
This is why a brilliant film like Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant largely gets forgotten.
A 2-D, low-budget, Warner Bros. animation feature film was never supposed to have an impact on the box office. Add in the fact that it has political overtones going back to the Cold War and the space race and the days of Sputnik and you’ve essentially gone over the heads of your target audience. So this explains why many people haven’t heard of The Iron Giant. It does not, however, explain why we love it so dearly.
Why We Love It
As is the case with any Brad Bird movie (who directed The Incredibles and Ratatouille for Pixar), he treats his audience with respect. He never talks down to his audience when telling a tale, even one as simple as a giant metal machine that falls from the sky that turns out to have a soul. Bird’s genius in story-telling is what layers the film, making it about an entire town of fully-rounded, complex characters, not just a story about a boy who pals around with a machine.
We love that Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) is not just a precocious kid, he’s also compassionate and reasonable; that Hogarth’s mom (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) is not just some wet blanket who scolds her child, she’s also a single mother trying desperately hard, and often failing, to just keep her child safe; that beatnik junkyard owner Dean (voiced by Harry Connick Jr.) isn’t just some 1950’s cliche even if he may be dressed like one.
We love that Vin Diesel voices the Giant and only says about three words in the entire movie. Likewise, Christopher McDonald’s Kent Mansley (from the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomenon) is the perfect G-man villain from the era, accusing everyone of being a Communist while still being derailed like Wily E. Coyote at every turn.
It’s silly at times, but it never loses its integrity. The action takes place in a town called “Rockwell”, yet it never relies on being Rockwellian. It’s just quaint and familiar, and it’s the type of storytelling we miss nowadays.
The Moment We Fell in Love
The scene where Hogarth has to hide the Giant in his barn, but the Giant’s hand shows up outside his kitchen window. Yep, that’s confusing to explain. It’s one of those scenes where the main character has to hide his whimsical/magical secret from his parents and is just on the brink of being discovered. I think it was in every 1980s movie or in virtually any Brendan Fraser movie from the early-to-mid 90s.
Funny, charming, dare I say heartbreaking, at times frightening, and legitimately exciting, the Iron Giant is a film you need to see even if its one you’ve never thought twice about.