The Iron Giant

Before Brad Bird was launched into superstardom (directorially speaking, that is) following the release of The Incredibles, he was a creative talent floating around Hollywood with a penchant for animation and slightly quirky stories.  He was a writer and animator for The Simpsons, a consultant for the oddball animated comedy The Critic, and was even involved in a few projects with Steven Spielberg.  With the release of The Iron Giant, his animation-meets-CGI opus from 1999, he was given a chance to show the world what he and his rich imagination could do given enough time to develop a full-length storyline.  The results were good, but met with a few flaws that keep this film from being among the truly classic works of animation.

At its core, The Iron Giant is a story about a boy and his friend.  This boy, named Hogarth, like the protagonists of so many of these kinds of films, is misunderstood by adults, has few companions at school, and spends too much time lost in his own imagination.  He’s a bit Calvinlike, in some respects, though not as mean-spirited towards authority.  At any rate, it’s no surprise that when an unearthly visitor crash-lands near the boy’s small hometown in Maine, that Hogarth forms an immediate bond with him.  Hogarth and the Iron Giant (voiced rather tenderly by the venerable Vin Diesel) spend much of the film simply existing together:  playing, relaxing, having adventures, and keeping their secret friendship away from adults and authority figures.  Much of the film is a paint-by-numbers exercise in retreading past stories, though:  Hogarth’s mom is too busy to pay attention to her son.  One man, a government investigator, knows something is going on with Hogarth and is determined to find out.  One adult does believe Hogarth and helps him out.  Soon enough the secret is out and the authorities do find out.  Everyone freaks, people panic, the Army gets involved, and…well, you get the point.

The Brad Bird quirkiness comes from the sheer nature of the story: a kid befriends a 100-foot tall metal behemoth.  It’s a bit different from typical Disney fare, you might say.  But I had a hard time buying the friendship and the isolation from all adults.  Early on in the film the giant causes a train to crash, and this should have been a pivotal turning point in the story.  But for the most part people just continue in their daily lives afterwards while Hogarth and his pet giant continue to frolic about in the woods unnoticed, and no one in town (save for the savvy investigator) bothering to ask any questions.  I can give animated films a lot of leeway and wiggle room, but I just wasn’t able to let go of some of these types of plot issues.

Like Titan A.E., I get the feeling that this film started out as a fantastic idea, but something got lost in the translation to celluloid.  It’s entertaining but not engrossing.  Interesting but not engaging.  And the emotional core never really came through to me (Hogarth actually says “I love you” to the giant late in the film–a cringe-worthy moment that felt entirely forced and was entirely unbelievable, and seemed like the filmmakers knew they had failed to create a true emotional connection between the two characters and at that point decided to just go for broke.)  I suppose if I was younger the movie would have been better, but seeing it for the first time as a guy who’s almost thirty, it just wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be.

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