family movieThe Iron Giant

The Iron GiantCast: (voices of) Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Eli Marienthal, Vin Diesel, Christopher McDonald, John Mahoney, M. Emmet Walsh.
Writers: Tim McCanlies and Brad Bird.
Cinematographer: Mark Dinicola
Producers: Allison Abbate and Des McAnuff.
Director: Brad Bird.
1999; rated PG.

Kid Grade: D+
Mom Grade: A-

Review by Jen Walker.

An open letter to parents from Jen.

It's 1957. Sputnik is circling the Earth, and children are watching ridiculous duck-and-cover survival films in school. The late-night television air waves are transmitting cheesy science-fiction movies to American kids, filling their young minds with not-so-subliminal anti-Soviet propaganda. Rock and roll has taken over the radio, and Beatnik culture has begun to infiltrate small-town Maine.

This is the world of Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), an only child who spends entirely too much time unsupervised. His father is conspicuously absent--a photo of a uniformed pilot on his nightstand suggests he died in the war--and his mother (Jennifer Aniston) often works double shifts at the local diner, leaving Hogarth home alone with his comic books, his sci-fi movies, and his imagination. Hogarth and the Iron Giant

Into this world comes the Iron Giant (Vin Diesel), plummeting from the night sky in a fiery streak, terrorizing his only witness, the town drunk. The next morning, while Hogarth is at the diner begging his mom to let him keep a pet squirrel, he overhears the man's fantastic ravings. Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), a cool cat with a goatee and leather jacket, sticks up for the old man, saying that he believes his story about a monster from outer space. This makes Dean a hero in Hogarth's huge, quarter-shaped eyes.

With his mother working late yet again, Hogarth spends that night in front of the TV, injecting extra whipped cream into Twinkies for dinner, and working himself into a fine state of the creeps watching a horrible movie about a large, disembodied, man-eating brain. After climbing onto the roof and finding a missing antenna the source of suddenly fuzzy reception, Hogarth hears noises in the nearby woods and prepares for battle. Armed with a pellet gun and flashlight, and clad in authentic, adult-sized bomber jacket and flight helmet, he sets off in search of the mythical space invader.

He finds him.

I'm kicking myself for having missed the opportunity to see The Iron Giant in the theater. While his mammoth size is conveyed adequately on video, mostly because he's often pictured towering over trees and dwarfing Hogarth, he would have been an awesome spectacle on the big screen. A hulking metal behemoth, he moves with startling speed and grace, and the camera follows him in a fluid motion that captures and emphasizes his physicality. The Iron Giant

Hogarth soon discovers that the giant needs to eat to survive, and that he craves metal as a food source. He leads his new-found friend to the area's scrap yard, operated by a first shocked, then accepting Dean. There, the giant is free to gorge himself on all the abandoned cars he can get his hands on, but Dean makes it clear that his junk-inspired sculptures of modern art are off-limits. Together, the three enjoy a little slice of robot heaven, but how long can it last?

Kent (Christopher McDonald), a government agent, is hot on the giant's trail, following a string of half-eaten cars and accounts from disbelieving eye-witnesses. He is the embodiment of McCarthy-era paranoia, convinced that the giant is a weapon of mass destruction sent by the Reds. Interrogating Hogarth in the interest of national security, he will stop at nothing to protect his sacred view of the American way of life.

The Iron Giant bored my 8-year old daughter, Michele, so much that she got up and left the room after twenty minutes.  Accustomed to raucous production numbers and smart-mouthed characters, she was not engaged by the movie's quiet delivery. Even the wonderful soundtrack of classic 50s tunes is muted, never assaulting the ears and overpowering the images.  Hogarth never lapses into 1990s slang and mannerisms just to appease today's youngsters. Rather, he remains firmly rooted in his own decade, properly respectful, appropriately innocent, and with a child's limitations.

I suspect the real reason that she couldn't get into it, however, is for the simple fact that the giant is not cute. Drawn very simply, he is a flat gray piece of machinery, with an appropriately robotic voice and facial expression. Though it becomes clear that the giant does have a soul as well as a brave, kind heart, he never displays much personality, and I don't particularly think he needs to. Had he been a 200-foot-tall R2D2, she may have been able to sit through the movie. For this reason, I think The Iron Giant might appeal more strongly to boys, but even they might have trouble holding still through such a languid, dignified picture.

It probably received its PG rating due to some mild swearing uttered by some of the adult characters. I heard a couple of damns and hells in there, but to me, they seemed an appropriate part of natural speech considering the circumstances, and I didn't really notice them until I sat down to write this review. It also raises the subject of impending nuclear holocaust, but children born after the end of the cold war, such as Michele, will probably view that, amazingly, as nothing other than science-fiction fantasy.

The Iron Giant offers a look back into an era fondly remembered. It is steeped in 1950s paranoia and naivete, a story whole and separate from the world in which millenial children currently exist. In a decade full of extreme advertising, extreme sports, and even extreme snacks, modern children may not appreciate a movie such as The Iron Giant. But if we can get them to slow down long enough to give it a chance, they will be treated to something truly special in this day and age: a damn good story.

Review © November 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Warner Bros.


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