First published under the title The Iron Man in Great Britain in 1968, The Iron Giant is a minor classic of 20th-century children's literature. The slim volume by the English poet laureate Ted Hughes is a pacifist parable in the guise of a sci-fi hero fantasy. Hughes spun his yarn of a giant robot who, befriended by a little farm boy, saves the world from a monstrous "space-bat-angel-dragon" in language of swift, hard beauty and with a lordly and refreshing indifference to narrative logic.
It's a slight but charming book. The surprise is that the film that has been made by drastically reworking the book expanding upon the characters, narrowing the scope, rethinking the period and theme and, above all, Americanizing the story from top to bottom is every bit as enchanting, maybe more. The Iron Giant should be a gross vulgarization, but instead it is probably the best animated feature for children since Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
The director, Brad Bird, has reset the story in coastal small-town Maine of 1957. The little boy, still named Hogarth, is now the son of a single mother, an imaginative kid who loves comics and scary late shows. The Giant retains the most captivating traits that Hughes gave him. He still likes a good nosh of metal, a car or a tractor, and he can still reassemble himself when he breaks apart, but he's less of a mysterious figure here. An alien from space, he was plainly built as an instrument of war. This identity becomes ingeniously central to the movie's refashioning of the material.
The sensibility with which Bird, working with screenwriter Tim McCanlies, endows the film is distinctly modern, while the treatment of the period is retrospective. As in the Hughes story, Hogarth finds a home for the Giant at the local junkyard, but that junkyard is now run by a friendly beatnik who turns the twisted scrap metal into sculpture. And instead of the space-bat-angel-dragon descending from a star, the menace in the film is far less allegorical it's the paranoid, red-hunting U.S. government in the person of a snooping, bumbling, falsely fatherly G-man.
Most of the trouble in the plot comes from the unstable G-man, and there is a reference to the "duck-and-cover" nuclear war propaganda that has a nice payoff in the final minutes of the film. Bird inverts the view of the '50s that we get from most films of that decade so cleverly that the vintage tunes on the soundtrack, by the likes of Jimmy Rodgers, Ray Charles and the Coasters, lose their quaintness and sound truly, and splendidly, subversive.
The delight of the movie is that it isn't heavy or didactic; the thematic side of it is fine brushwork in an unpretentious, funky, fast-moving tale for kids. It's also a visual feast of deep, ravishing colors and supple movements. There are unfussy hints, in both the narrative and the imagery, of Christian allegory, and even this doesn't throw the tone off. The last few shots of the film, set on a field of ice, are perhaps a bit more explicit than necessary, but this is as close to a criticism of The Iron Giant as one gets.
The Iron Giant keeps its social commentary and "deeper meanings" on the margins. While its nostalgia isn't simplistic, it is affectionate. But Hogarth isn't a goody-goody. You get the impression that he enjoys the freedom that having a busy single parent allows him.
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The voice cast Eli Marienthal as Hogarth, Jennifer Aniston as his mother, Christopher McDonald as the G-man, Harry Connick Jr. as the beatnik, and John Mahoney, Cloris Leachman, James Gammon and M. Emmet Walsh in smaller roles are all effortlessly effective. The most touching performance, however, is that of the appropriately named Vin Diesel (of Saving Private Ryan), who's the voice, and the heart, under the metallic scrapes and creaks and groans that issue from the Giant's ponderous mouth.
Robots have been developing their own feelings and desires quite literally for as long as the term "robot" has existed. In The Iron Giant, the title character realizes he was intended as a fighting machine, and through Hogarth's humanizing influence he decides that he doesn't want to be that machine. Bird and McCanlies use the American idea that you can choose to be whatever you want as the moral of the story.
Stanley Kubrick, much on everyone's minds these days, gave a computer an independent humanity in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the machine promptly turned into a murderer. Reputedly, the project with which Kubrick hoped to follow was about the relationship between a robot and a boy. It's pleasant to speculate that, just maybe, Kubrick's pessimism might have lifted over the years and that this unrealized movie might have had some of the same spirit as The Iron Giant.
The Iron Giant. Directed by Brad Bird. With the voices of Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel, Christopher McDonald, Cloris Leachman and M. Emmet Walsh. Rated PG.