THE IRON GIANT, 1999
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel, James Gammon, Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney, Eli Marienthal, M. Emmet Walsh
This is the story a nine-year-old boy named Hogarth Hughes who makes friends with an innocent alien giant robot that came from outer space. Meanwhile, a paranoid U.S. Government agent named Kent Mansley arrives in town, determined to destroy the giant at all costs. It's up to Hogarth to protect him by keeping him at Dean McCoppin's place in the junkyard.
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As moviegoers, we have this strange tendency: we’re liable to classify any animated film as a “Disney” film. That applies to movies made by Fox, Warner Bros, and DreamWorks alike. It’s a misconception that must irritate the makers of non-Disney animated films, since it implies that only Disney can make worthwhile cartoon features. Well, it comes to the Warner Bros movie “The Iron Giant,” Disney only wishes it were involved.
Hogarth Hughes is a lonely kid. His mother works long hours to support them, and he’s not exactly popular at school. Hogarth’s passion is science fiction, so when he hears a local fisherman’s rambling tale about a gigantic monster, he’s captivated. That very night, Hogarth follows a trail of huge footprints into the woods – and finds himself staring up at an enormous creature from another world. Thanks to a head injury, the robot has no memory of where he came from or what he is meant to do. The boy and the giant form a strong bond, but when a suspicious government agent arrives on the scene, Hogarth must do all he can to protect his new friend.
Adapted from Ted Hughes’s short story by director Brad Bird and Tim McCanlies, “The Iron Giant” is a real gem. It has it all: beautiful animation, a solid story, fleshed-out characters, humour, and heart. It also tackles a number of sensitive issues, like death and what it means to have a soul, with maturity and sensitivity. Set in 1957, the film deals with Cold War paranoia and its effect on daily life, including the constant threat of nuclear warfare. America is already afraid of being attacked by the Russians, so the presence of an alien visitor understandably causes hysteria. What’s interesting about “The Iron Giant” is that to some extent, the public’s fears are validated. When the giant discovers his true nature, it complicates matters, to say the least. That’s when the central lesson of the movie comes into play: that we always have a choice as to what we do and who we are.
The cast infuses the characters with humanity. Vin Diesel shines here, his distinctive voice giving the Giant both strength and gentleness. Eli Marienthal plays Hogarth with an endearing sincerity; when tells the Giant he loves him, it’s honest, not precious. Jennifer Aniston is likewise appealing as Hogarth’s mother, and Harry Connick, Jr. is excellent as the beatnik junk-man Hogarth befriends. Christopher McDonald plays Agent Kent Mansley, and although the character is a comical kind of antagonist, there’s something frightening about him. He’s a man so blinded by ambition and faith in his superiors that he will do anything to find the Giant and destroy him. Mansley says it himself: “I can do anything I want, whenever I want if I feel it's in the people's best interest.” There’s something terrifying about a character who would endanger the life of a ten-year-old boy because he felt that the government would reward him for it. Rounding out the cast are John Mahoney as General Rogard and Cloris Leachman as Hogarth’s teacher, although her part is cut down to only one line of dialogue.
The late Michael Kamen contributes a lovely score which perfectly complements Hogarth’s poignant relationship with the Giant.
It’s a shame that “The Iron Giant” was so ignored when it was first released, although thankfully, audiences seem to appreciate it more in retrospect. It’s beautiful to look at and listen to, but most importantly, it has an emotional resonance that stays with you long after the credits roll. In fact, after “The Iron Giant,” you may just never think of the name “Superman” the same way again.