The Iron Giant
Everyone kid should have their own giant robot
The Iron Giant
Warner Bros.
Directed by Brad Bird
USA, 1999
There are some dreams that are common to just about every North American boy. A lifetime supply of jellybeans. The ability to fly. Having your own giant robot.

There's a moment in Iron Giant where Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) realizes that the titular 60-foot robot is much like a faithful puppy. He trembles as he says, "I've got my very own giant robot!" and looks like he'll fly apart as he finishes, "I'm the luckiest kid in America!"

That moment just about defines The Iron Giant, an animated cross between E.T., Giant Robo, and maybe Old Yeller. It's 1957 in the fictitious town of Rockwell, Maine, and Sputnik has just taken to the air. The aforementioned giant robot has crash-landed from outer space, and Hogarth has taken him in as if he were some kind of pet.

Actually, he turns out to be more like a big kid, and Hogarth teaches him about manners, right and wrong, and how to have fun. The Iron Giant is a light-hearted film with plenty of good-natured laughs, and it's definitely aimed at kids. But like the best kids' stories, it has a solid enough heart that adults will happily see it, with or without the tykes. Seeing it with the little ones would probably be the most beneficial: there are plenty of elements here that are ripe for parent-child discussion, but they're handled expertly enough--and humorously enough--that they don't weigh down the film.

In this way, the movie is true to its roots, based as it is on Ted Hughes's The Iron Man, which was to help Hughes's children deal with the suicide of their mother, Sylvia Plath, in 1963. (Hughes died before the film's completion, which is truly a shame.) The specifics of the story have changed, but the basic aim of the story is still there in essence, with a few added touches.

The Cold War is in full swing, you see, and the space race has just been kicked off. The kids are watching "duck and cover" films in school, and paranoia lurks under the veneer of suburban paradise. When Hogarth first meets Dean, a scrap-metal dealer and Beat artist (coolly voiced by Harry Connick, Jr.), he's defending the old fisherman who first spotted the robot. "If we don't stand up for the freaks", he says to Hogarth, "who will?"

At which point we cue Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), a young federal agent who's ready to sacrifice anything short of his own neck in the name of national security. He definitely will not stand up for the freaks, and he's determined to fathom the mystery of the giant robot, and destroy him. All he knows is that the robot is "foreign... and all that implies." Between Dean's liberal hipness and Kent's willingness to endanger the all-American boy he's supposed to be protecting, there's plenty of ground to cover here.

With that and Hogarth's teachings The Iron Giant might sound pretty preachy, but it's less so than even your average animated flick. Although this is director Brad Bird's first feature, his experience on The Simpsons serves him well here. The underlying messages get through without sacrificing the laughs--in fact, the laughs get many of the points across beautifully. But more than anything else, Bird's knack for getting to the heart of a character is what makes this movie. The robot may be a giant hunk of metal, but since he's learning human nature--and his own--from a kid, he's pretty childlike himself. If it were possible for a robot to express glee, he does it several times.

Bird expertly evokes the dual nature of childhood with both Hogarth and the robot, as they're both forced to take on responsibilities greater than their years, while still embracing the joys of childhood. Few animation directors can grab the audience so effortlessly, John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki being the only two that come to mind. It's the kind of storytelling that will draw the young and the old to The Iron Giant. Bird has made an auspicious debut here; I can't wait to see what he does next.

A Critical Eye exclusive (August 10, 1999)
Eight people - eight lives - one universal groove