Brad Bird is one of a handful of directors to find success in both animation and live action films. Working with Pixar, he did both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and he helmed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which is the best movie in that series. But before those successes, he made his feature debut with the classically animated film, The Iron Giant.
The movie is based on a 1968 children’s book, “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes. When the book was published in the US, the name was changed to avoid confusion with Marvel Comic’s character. Hughes was known for his poetry and was Poet Laureate of England from 1984 until his death in 1998. (Today he’s also remembered in connection to his first wife, poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, author of “The Bell Jar.”) Bird adapted the story along with screenwriter Tim McCanlies (Second Hand Lions, “Smallville”). They move the story from England to coastal Maine in 1957, at the height of the Red Menace fears. Instead of the intergalactic threat to peace in the original, The Iron Giant has an all-too-human villain who is motivated by fear and paranoia.
The giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) crashes to earth just off the coastal town of Rockwell, Maine. He accidentally sinks a fishing boat, though the fisherman survives. Rockwell is the home to 9-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) and his mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston), who’s a waitress at the town’s diner. Hogarth meets the local junkyard man and aspiring artist, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), when the squirrel he wants to keep as a pet gets loose at the diner.
Hogarth is home alone that night, watching a forbidden sci-fi horror flick on the TV, when the picture turns to static. When he checks on the antenna, he finds it’s gone, and he sees a trail leading off into the forest. Armed with his BB gun and wearing a plastic Army helmet, Hogarth investigates, and comes across the Giant. The Giant has a ravenous appetite for metal, and when he tries to eat a power substation, he gets hung up in the high-tension wires. Hogarth saves him by cutting the power. Hogarth runs from the scene, only to be found by Annie, who’s searching for him after finding the house empty. Later the next day, he returns and finds the Giant who, because of a blow to his head, is like a very large child himself. He introduces the Giant to McCoppin, so the junkman can help satiate the Giant’s hunger for metal.
The report by the fisherman and the blackout cause at the substation has raised the suspicions of a government operative, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald). He’s at first dismissive of the assignment, but that changes when he finds his car half-eaten by the Giant. When he finds the remains of Hogarth’s BB gun at the substation, he suspects he has a way to find the Giant.
Along with the actors noted above, others who supply their vocal talents to the movie include Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney and M. Emmett Walsh. The animation, done by Warner Brothers, is on par with later Disney films such as The Fox and the Hound, though in style the film is more complex, closer to live-action movies. Its closest spiritual cousins are The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original, not the Keanu Reeves mess), both of which were comments on the paranoia of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
While it’s an animated movie and can be enjoyed in that way, it also works well for adults, especially those who remember what it was like to be a child in the middle of the last century. It draws you back to that more innocent time of friendship and imagination, and it grabs your heart strings and plays them shamelessly with its theme of sacrificial love. That’s a good thing, for as long as our hearts can still be reached with a message of love and understanding, there’s hope for us yet.