The Great 90’s Animated Film Project: “The Iron Giant” (1999)

The Swan Princess,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame,
The Prince of Egypt,
Quest for Camelot,

And now, the final part of The Great 90’s Animated Film Project, a post on the Brad Bird’s 1999 film The Iron Giant. The film is based off of Ted Hughes 1968 novel, The Iron Man and uses various points in that to serve as the basis. Although, if I remember the novel correctly, most of what happens in the film does not occur in the book. (It’s been a while since I read the book.)

In 1957, a large object is falling from the sky and the Iron Giant (Vin Diesel) crash lands off the coast of Maine, destroying a boat on accident and scaring a fisherman. The next day, we meet Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), as he heads to the diner that his mother, Annie (Jennifer Aniston), works at to show her the new pet he’s found. Annie doesn’t want a pet and the prospective pet, a squirrel, ends up getting loose in the diner, reeking havoc. Annie later has to work late and when the TV signal goes out, Hogarth goes out into the woods and finds the Iron Giant eating metal at the electrical substation. The Iron Giant later gets tangled up in power lines and Hogarth saves him by turning off the electricity.

The next day, Kirk Mansley, a U.S. Government agent arrives in the quaint town of Rockwell after hearing stories of large creatures and pieces of metal being eaten. Mansley dismisses these stories until half of his car is eaten, and then taken by the giant while Mansley isn’t watching. Hogarth then goes and finds the giant and teaches him English. After a train derailment that occurs when the giant tries to fix a track he screws up, the giant becomes dismembered, but hides in the Hughes’ barn while his various body parts go and return to him. Mansley shows up at the Hughes’ house to use the phone and becomes a bit suspicious of Hogarth and his stories. That evening Hogarth tells the giant of Superman and how the giant is like Superman: an alien that becomes a hero.

The next morning, Mansley rents a room with the Hughes and goes off with Hogarth for a trip intended to be spent with the giant. Hogarth manages to beat off Mansley and go to the giant, whom he takes to Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), a beatnik scrap metal yard owner and artist, whom he convinces to take in the giant. After Mansley has photographic evidence of the giant’s existence, he informs Lieutenant General Rogard (John Mahoney) and the military arrives. They are then tricked into thinking that the giant is one of Dean’s pieces of art, but then the military discovers that the giant does exist.

The fascinating thing about Bird’s film is that both he screenplay writer Tim McCaniles have eschewed the formula for animated films. There are no musical numbers, there is no Cute Little Animated Character and the film works just fine without them. In fact, the film manages to be more effective without them because of the focus on the internal struggle the giant has between his two natures. He can either be a weapon or he can be Superman. His instinct to be a weapon is defensive and when the military starts attacking him and Rockwell, his response to become a weapon is terrifying. But the ending of the film is when he decides to be the hero, to be Superman. As he says to Hogarth, “I am not a gun,” and his realization as to what his destiny is causes this film to be so emotionally effective.

But the Iron Giant is not the only hero in the film; there’s also Hogarth, a kid who loves scary films and comics. Because of his desire to have a pet, one might assume that Hogarth’s decision to teach the giant English and play with him is because he wants a pet. But Hogarth ultimately sees the giant as a person and an individual that has a soul. “You’re made of metal, but you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul,” he says to the giant at one point. He sees the giant as a person and to the credit of Bird and McCaniles, the Iron Giant is a more emotionally complex and nuanced character than most characters in the films I’ve watched for this series of blog posts.

Kirk Mansley serves as the villain in this film; he is a scummy, government agent. He isn’t downright evil, but he is aware of the power he has as a government agent. During an interrogation of Hogarth, he explains that he could get someone in the government to take him away from his mother. Mansley is, if anything, mad with power and manipulative. He rents the room that the Hughes have so he can get to know Hogarth better and find out as much as he can about the giant. Mansley is an incredibly motivated antagonist that manages to destroy three vehicles in the film. But Mansley is also a coward, as seen at the end of the film where, when being told he will die for his country because of a stupid mistake he made, Mansley yells, “Screw our country! I want to live!” Mansley is a weasel; he is a scumbag. He is not so much a villain as an antagonist because he is a person, not some caricature. Although there can be very good villains that are completely evil, but those villains are motivated and manage to be human.

Although, you could argue that one of the human characters is a Cute Little Animal Character. But then who would it be? Hogarth? Dean? The problem is that none of the characters are exactly wise-cracking sidekicks. Although Dean makes comments about how espresso is “like Coffeezilla,” it’s part of his character and comes off as being more of a way of explaining espresso’s potency to a kid. All of the characters, even the Iron Giant, are characters that feel human. They have developed emotions and feelings, they are motived to do what they do in the film.

As for the animation, The Iron Giant does not have the magnificent animation of The Prince of Egypt or Tarzan, but the simplicity of the animation feels like a reflection of the film itself, which is a simple science-fiction film that has one purpose: to tell a story. And the animators managed to have incredibly expressive characters. Even the Iron Giant, who does not have the face of a human, manages to show emotions just by how the eyes change.

The Iron Giant is not a epic musical like many of its predecessors. It is a film that tells a story of friendship and evokes the mood and attitude of the 1950’s with videos about ducking and covering during nuclear holocaust. The film tells us that we are who we choose to be and what this film chose to be was a film that told a story, not a film that sold merchandise. And the simplicity of this film is what makes it great.


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