On August 6th, 1999, Warner Brothers unveiled an animated movie that went up against its’ release date neighbor, The Sixth Sense. And not only was it competing with a new horror classic, but the powerhouse fairy tales of Walt Disney for good measure. Unfortunately, the movie bombed and did not meet the standards of previous animated films. Twenty years later, it would grow to become a cult classic and widely beloved by most audiences. This movie is ‘The Iron Giant’.
For those unaware, ‘The Iron Giant‘ is based on the novel ‘The Iron Man‘ by Ted Hughes. In it, we find a young boy, Hogarth, living in paranoid, yet tranquil Maine in 1957. The atomic bomb threat looms heavily over the town, but kids treat it about as customary as pledging allegiance to the flag. The Cold War is going on and somehow Hogarth is gleefully curious to everything strange and unknown, as proven by his late night viewings of classic science fiction films. One night, he discovers the titled robot hunting down scrap. Instead of panicking, Hogarth develops a bond with the giant and even gives him shelter in the nearby scrap yard, overseen by a ripped-out-of-the-50’s artist named Dean. A CIA agent arrives, bedtimes are missed, and plenty of chaos ensues, culminating in a hilarious, beautiful, and heartwarming story.
It really is something else to look at Brad Bird’s directorial work now and see how grounded he’s remained. Are his stories large and action-packed? Absolutely. But at the core, he always focuses on the characters. One of the most exciting things about Brad’s style is that he doesn’t just see a person, but instead highlights their characteristics. Take Helen Parr from The Incredibles: She looks similar to her supporting cast, but she speaks out of the side of her mouth, much like her voice-actress Holly Hunter. It’s these small details that make Brad’s works so special and The Iron Giant is the project that started it all.
The Iron Giant‘s voice cast is a weird, yet perfectly 90’s ensemble. Jennifer Aniston voices Hogarth’s mom, while Harry Connick Jr. gives life to the cool and lovable beatnik, Dean. Christopher McDonald of Happy Gilmore fame provides assistance to Special Agent Kent Mansley and the late John Mahoney chews up his lines by bringing intensity to General Rogard. But the film’s biggest surprise is the voice of Vin Diesel behind the massive, lovable Iron Giant. It was here that Vin began to see his name blow up. A year later, he landed the role of Riddick in Pitch Black’and starred alongside Giovanni Ribisi in Boiler Room. Now, of course, we know him as Dominic Toretto in the ‘Fast & Furious’ films (check out our deep dive into the franchise HERE ) and the very similarly tall and lovable Groot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, also a character who can charm viewers with few words.
Hogarth and the Iron Giant’s relationship is what keeps the movie enjoyable, no doubt. But, there’s so much heart in the movie that it feels like there’s more going on than seen at first glance. There’s a continued theme in ‘The Iron Giant‘ that guns are bad and can be dangerous when the wrong feeling is behind them, an all-too-familiar theme to us lately, unfortunately. Hogarth has a line where he tells the Iron Giant, “Guns kill” after he finds a deer that has been struck down by hunters. Obviously this coincides with the Giant’s born motivation to destroy everything in its’ path, but it turns out there’s a deeper story here.
Part of Brad Bird’s inspiration behind this film was the loss of his sister to gun violence at the hand of her husband. Heartbroken, Brad tried to find a way to express this anger and confusion over guns and the harm they bring onto others. Once he was introduced to the idea of adapting Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, he went to the studio and asked “What if a gun had a soul and it didn’t want to kill?” That pitch, along with a quick overview of the story, became the film’s selling point. The love and passion that pours out of The Iron Giant is proof that making a story from deeply emotional places can bring out the best in us.
In 2019, we don’t see nearly enough truly hand-drawn animated products and, watching The Iron Giant, that void feels even bigger when you see how how beautiful the animation looks. The rich, deep fall colors of Maine light up the screen and bring such life to the scenery behind this story of friendship. After Disney shut down their animation studio, there hasn’t been any hand-drawn film that matches the beauty of The Iron Giant, original Disney classics, or Don Bluth productions. With all the love this film has received over the past twenty years, hopefully something clicks and reawakens the animation studios to a new generation.
Some animated movies hold their audiences’ hand, telling them when to laugh and giving them cheap humor to make money. The Iron Giant is a testament to how animated films are more than a medium for children: They’re a medium of entertainment for everyone. Twenty years after its’ release, The Iron Giant couldn’t be more relevant to our society. In fact, it might be the alarm clock we all need this year.