The Iron Giant (1999)
Directed by Brad Bird
Cast Voices: Eli Marienthal, Vin Diesel, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Christopher McDonald, John Mahoney, Cloris Leachman, M. Emmett Walsh.
1999 85 minutes
Rated: (for brief, mild profanity and mature themes).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 1, 1999.
The praise Warner Brothers' new animated film, "The Iron Giant," has been getting is phenomenally positive, with a few critics who have gone as far as to call it a classic, the best animated film in a long time, and WB's first successful venture into the world of animation (after dismal results with "The Quest for Camelot" and "The King and I"). Thus, going into the movie theater was a hopeful, relatively assured experience; I was ready to like, and embrace, the film, just as long as it was as special as everyone has been saying. It isn't, and actually surprised me in how lacking the whole film was in almost every respect, despite its more mature themes than the usual animated flick. For me, at least, WB's losing streak continues, even if it is worlds above the dreadful "The King and I."
Based on the 1968 novel by Ted Hughes, "The Iron Giant" begins as a giant robot from outer space crashes into the ocean during a hurricane, but is able to reach land unscathed. Rumors begin to circulate around the tiny New England town of Rockwell, Maine, circa 1959, about a huge creature that a sailor allegedly glimpsed while out on the waters. Hiding within the tall forest directly above the town, the robot, named the Iron Giant, is equipped with weapons all over his body, basically programmed as a destroying machine, but due to a dent in his head caused from falling to Earth, he doesn't remember this. When 10-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) is home alone one night watching a scary movie (his mother, voiced by Jennifer Aniston, sometimes has to work late at the local diner), the television abruptly goes to static and, investigating, Hogarth discovers that their antenna has been eaten, and a large path has been made into the woods behind his house. Following it, he meets the Iron Giant, whom he is frightened of at first until he realizes he is a kind robot that just needs a little discipline. This unlikely pair soon become close buddies, but Hogarth fears their friendship will be threatened if anyone else finds out about him, especially when oily government agent Kent Mansley (voiced by Christopher McDonald) sets out to find the unidentified being from another planet.
While it can be appreciated that "The Iron Giant," directed by Brad Bird, features several adult themes that you do not usually find in animated films (including serious talks about death, faith in God, and the nuclear holocaust), and we are thankfully spared singing characters and cute (read: annoying) animal sidekicks, the film is disappointing and flawed for many reasons. For one, the movie feels overlong while you are watching it, even at a scant 85 minutes, but in retrospect, virtually nothing occurs outside of the major storyline between the robot and the young boy. Unfortunately, on this level alone, even amidst its tranquil nature and innocence, the film is almost shameful in its extreme similarities with the 1982 classic, "E.T." Replace a small alien with a giant robot, tranport the time period back some 22 years, and turn the three-dimensional, well-developed human actors into one-dimensional, thinly-written animated characters, (mix well) and you've practically got the same movie.
The character of Hogarth's mother is an example of a wasted, thoroughly undealt-with creation. Working as a waitress and obviously struggling to raise her son on her own, a possible subplot is briefly brought up in which you expect to learn more about her and her personal problems, but apparently director Bird felt that anything revolving outside of the cliched robot storyline would make children squirm. I beg to differ, however, since Bird is ambitious enough to discuss several heavy topics, and send out worthy anti-gun and anti-violence messages, and the children in the audience didn't make a peep. Aside from the robot himself, the film is refreshingly realistic, and because of this, children will be more likely to relate to the characters and situations, while adults will appreciate the distinct period flavor, including how, during the Cold War, school children were instructed to climb underneath their desks in case a nuclear bomb was to hit. If the film had gone a little bit further in portraying this particular era, including using, perhaps, an array of popular '50s tunes to underscore the goings-on, it might have been more enjoyable on this level.
"The Iron Giant" is not a complete washout (it's a little too aspiring for that), but remains a missed opportunity. The film strains to follows the cookie-cutter basics of the plot, in which "boy-meets-robot, boy-befriends-robot, boy-must-bid-farewell-to-robot-when-his-safety-is-threatened," and not once strays from this well-worn path. The entrance of agent Kent Mansley is irritating and a throwaway stock villain character, while the other supporting animated figures play as more of an afterthought. Finally, young, precocious Hogarth must briefly say goodbye to his beloved friend in the supposed-to-be-heart-tugging climax, but all I could really think about at that moment was, "I've seen this all before, and to much more powerful effect." Animated feature or not, "The Iron Giant" attempts to stray from the beaten path of Disney, but really, who is Warner Brothers kidding? I'll take Disney's superior animated entertainment, "Tarzan," over this any day of the week.
©1999 by Dustin Putman