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The Iron Giant (1999)

2016 #86
Brad Bird | 83 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Adapted (loosely) from Ted Hughes’ children’s novel The Iron Man, the feature debut of director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, now live-action stuff) relocates the book’s story to ’50s America and mixes in some Cold War elements. The film was somewhat verboten in our household when it came out, because the book was beloved and the film looked so different, but its reputation has only grown in the ensuing decade-and-a-half — and Hughes approved of it anyway.

This version sees the titular robot (voiced by Vin Diesel) crash to Earth near Maine in late 1957, the home of nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and his mom Annie (Jennifer Aniston). After the giant eats the Hughes’ TV aerial, Hogarth tracks it to take a photo, and ends up saving it from electrocution when it tries to eat a power station. As the giant sneaks around the countryside eating cars and causing train crashes, it attracts the attention of government agent Fox Mulder from the FBI’s X Files Kent Mansley from the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomena (Christopher McDonald), who’s intent on uncovering and destroying the giant. Hogarth tries to hide the friendly creature with the help of artist Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), but could it be Mansley isn’t so wrong about the threat it poses?

The story, as reconstructed by Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanlies, integrates influences from ’50s B-movies (very apt for a giant robot ‘monster’) and Cold War/Space Race paranoia for a potent storyline that has a different emphasis from the novel’s “world peace” finale, but nonetheless is promoting understanding of alien/foreign powers and, y’know, deep stuff like that. Alternatively — or, rather, concurrently — it’s an E.T.-esque tale of a boy and his quirky alien friend. Bird was keen to emphasise character over action and mindless spectacle, and that’s really where the film’s strengths lie.

Well, that and the technical aspects. The animation is stunningly well done, exhibiting exceptional fluidity and detail in its character animation, in particular. That’s in spite of the film having a reduced budget and time schedule thanks to the box office failure of previous animations by the studio — in Bird’s words, they had “one-third of the money of a Disney or DreamWorks film, and half of the production schedule”, but that meant greater production freedom (so long as they managed that budget). I guess that’s why the film’s ended up only growing in stature since its first release — because it’s able to be committed to its creators’ vision, rather than being battered into homogeneity by a studio desperate for a return on considerable investment.

Beautifully animated and affectingly told, with a style that nicely homages classic sci-fi movies, The Iron Giant is a film that deserves the reputation it has gradually amassed — and which only continues to grow, I think. Last year saw the release of an extended Signature Edition, with a couple of short scenes added, which comes to US Blu-ray (alongside the original version) later this year. Just from reading about those new scenes, I’m not convinced they’ll improve the experience, but it’ll certainly be worth finding out.

5 out of 5

The Iron Giant was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is also part of 1999 Week.

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