The Iron Giant (1999)

4 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

1999 brought a string of first-rate animated features, four of which in particular stood out among the rest, in my opinion. One was “Princess Mononoke,” a feature of Japanese-style animation. Another was the computer-generated “Toy Story 2.” But definitely not the least of these movies are hand-drawn animations Disney’s “Tarzan” and Warner’s “The Iron Giant.” “The Iron Giant” is the subject of this review, and it’s a wonderful movie—well-crafted, entertaining, funny, charming, witty, wonderfully-drawn, and just a joy to watch.

“The Iron Giant” mixes certain elements from science-fiction thrillers from the 1950s (such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) and brings to a level not unlike a “boy and his pet” story. In this case, it means that a giant metal robot man from outer space crashes down to Earth and is befriended by a young boy who vows to keep him hidden from the government and the Army. This giant robot could have been a threat to society (and we see that it can become a deadly weapon when it reacts to being fired upon, even by a toy space gun), like in the traditional sci-fi thrillers. But with help from a well-meaning little boy, he becomes a harmless being that learns as it goes along its journey on Earth. The boy describes him as Superman, in that he too has crash-landed on Earth without knowing why and using his power for good instead of evil—although, there’s another comic book character called Atomo which resembles the giant in every way except that he’s the villain instead of the hero. Will the giant continue the path of the hero?

The movie takes place in the mid-1950s, suitably enough. The hero boy’s name is Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal). Hogarth lives in Rockwell, Maine, and would like to have a pet, which his mother (Jennifer Aniston) won’t allow. One night, while Mom is working late, he’s watching cheesy monster movies when his TV antenna suddenly disappears, which Hogarth suspects as the workings of “invaders from Mars.” So he goes outside to investigate, when he finds the giant robot. The robot is about fifty feet tall and can only eat metal. When it tries to eat a power station and is nearly electrocuted by the wires, Hogarth arrives in time to save him, thus beginning the friendship between the two.

“My own giant robot! I am now the luckiest kid in America!” Hogarth proudly exclaims.

The giant won’t hurt the boy, and Hogarth believes he isn’t here to hurt people. He takes it upon himself to teach him certain things, like how to speak, and also to try and keep it a secret. But unlike E.T., however, hiding a fifty-foot metal man is not going to be an easy task. This leads to many funny moments; my favorite being a scene in which the giant’s disembodied hand scampers around the house like a puppy dog as Hogarth desperately tries to get it out before his mom notices.

But as he finds somebody to trust with his secret—a beatnik junkyard-owner/artist named Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), whose junkyard cars provide food for the giant—Hogarth also comes afoul of a sneaky, conniving, dastardly government agent named Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), who knows of the giant and is constantly questioning for Hogarth to find out what he knows about it.

This Kent fellow is a caricature of a G-man if I ever saw one. He doesn’t care about human nature, and even states out loud that if he doesn’t understand it, then it must be killed. He brings forth the U.S. Army to come and take out the iron giant, and doesn’t listen for a moment when Dean and Hogarth try to explain that it’s harmless if not fired upon. This is a heavy caricature of a government agent we’ve seen in other movies, but at least he knows it. And he does have a great final moment of comeuppance, which I won’t reveal.

The giant learns about friendship, the boy learns about tolerance, and everyone learns a certain expense that should or should not be made. “The Iron Giant” is a family film that teaches us all of these important lessons without ever being too preachy. And there’s a very strong anti-violence notion that comes midway through the film and continues in the final act, as the giant realizes that “guns kill” and just because the giant was possibly built for destruction doesn’t mean he has to be a weapon because as Hogarth puts it, “You are who you choose to be.”

The iron giant himself , voiced by Vin Diesel, is a lovable character. He’s well-designed and instantly appealing. This is a nice, gentle hunk of junk that we all come to care for and even feel sorry for. That’s saying something when you can make a robot lovable.

“The Iron Giant” is a delightful family film—wonderfully-crafted, nicely-animated, and surprisingly smart. It’s rare to come across a family film of this caliber, and when it comes around, it’s always welcome. I loved this movie.

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