Film Review: The Iron Giant (1999)

“You are who you choose to be.”

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It’s Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant.

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I saw this movie once in my childhood, when it first hit theaters – never to revisit it again until now.  I have two theories as to why: either it was way too much mature for me and went right over my head…or I cried my little eyes out and just wanted to spare my feelings.  Damn, this whole movie pulls on your heartstrings like Bambi’s dead mom.

Not to say the film is unnecessarily sappy and tearful…it just packs an emotional punch.  In fact, for a science-fiction film aimed at children, The Iron Giant is incredibly powerful…and I’m so glad my prof requested I give it a look.  Without further ado, this is The Iron Giant, from Warner Bros. Animation.

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THE GOOD

The film tells a BEAUTIFULLY developed (if not slightly unoriginal) story, set in a sci-fi-obsessed American small town during the Cold War era.  A lonely boy finds an unlikely friend in a lost visitor from outer space, and he keeps him a secret from his single mom and…well, the nosy and paranoid U.S. government.  Sounds kinda familiar, right?

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Yeah, this movie was already made.  All that’s missing is the Reese’s Pieces product placement.

Still, I won’t knock points from the film because it holds some similarities to the Stephen Spielberg classic…after all, you could argue that all science-fiction films possess the same plot lines and narrative elements – some just do it better than others.  And, frankly, The Iron Giant does it wonderfully.

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First of all, we have a strong protagonist: Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) is honest, believable, and just as weird as any sci-fi and horror film-obsessed 10 year-old boy you could know.  He’s a likable, realistic kid…especially considering his mom must HATE him.  Seriously, who the hell names their son “Hogarth“???

The giant (Vin Diesel), likewise, is a complex, enjoyable character.  He appears to have no memory of his life prior to his crash-landing on Earth…yet, he soon realizes he poses a danger to the planet’s inhabitants.  The audience learns he was originally designed as a defensive weapon, but the giant resists his destructive programming in order to enjoy his friendship with Hogarth and a scrap-artist named Dean (Harry Connick, Jr…for some reason).  The film also delves into the heavy issue of death (much like in E.T.), a concept that the giant struggles with…since, LIKE IN E.T., he has healing powers.

Okay, maybe the E.T. thing bothers me a little bit…again, this film executes that oh-so-familiar plot TERRIFICALLY.  If it didn’t, then we’d have a problem.

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The Iron Giant‘s heartfelt embodiment of theme of identity is especially strong as well.  In a poignant scene, the giant noses through Hogarth’s comic book collection to see tall, robotic men featured as the villains.  But Hogarth explains that the giant doesn’t have to be the bad guy…instead, he can choose to be like Superman.  This set-up leads to the waterworks later in the penultimate scene – if you’ve seen the movie, you know where I’m coming from…

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Finally, the animation is gorgeous.  While I was wary when I first read that the film combined hand-drawn animation with 3D computer graphics, they actually blend together nicely – the computer-animated giant doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb.  It’s detailed, energized, and emits an appropriate comic-book tone.  Bravo, Warner Brothers.

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THE NOT-SO-GOOD

It’s the same-old villain we see in every damn sci-fi movie: MAN.  Or THE GOVERNMENT.  Or THE ESTABLISHMENT.

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Nothing new here…which honestly isn’t the problem.  It’s just – for a movie that’s so similar to E.T. – the film’s villainous portrayal of the government falls short.  In E.T., the government wasn’t portrayed as trying to be the bad guy.  Honestly, it was just being…the government!  What else would you expect them to do if an alien dropped by?

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Instead, The Iron Giant gives us Mr. Ultra-Unlikeable SuperChin JerkFace.  Aka this guy, voiced by Christopher McDonald:

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An annoying villain through-and-through, who’s barely redeemable in the end…to me, the inclusion of this guy made no sense.  The film didn’t need an obvious, government-bigshot bad guy: it’s the Cold War/1950s Americana…of course the government would be paranoid about a humongous, foreign machine!  It really bothered me that the movie dumbed it down “for kids”…children are smarter than many film studios give them credit for.  Characters in children’s movies don’t need to always be so black-or-white.  It’s not an awful flaw…just a bit of a disappointment.

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Another nitpick about The Iron Giant: nothing surprised me.  It’s a great story with some memorable characters and beautiful animation…but, man, it was safe and predictable from beginning to end.  Hell, I even predicted the giant was eventually going to fly – I’m just shocked the animators didn’t throw him on a BIKE.

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Again, I blame the parallel similarities to E.T…but, movie, you coulda thrown ONE SURPRISE in there, right?

FINAL THOUGHTS

The good news is, there’s nothing BAD about this film.  Yeah, the clichéd points mentioned above annoyed me…but they weren’t horrible to the level of distracting me from the movie.  Ultimately, lovable characters, a well-paced plot, and valuable lessons and adult themes save the day.  Plus, the animation is worth checking out…that alone sets The Iron Giant apart from that raisin-like extraterrestrial.

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It’s not one of my favorites movies – in the end, I’ll sooner rewatch its Spielberg counterpart – but I can definitely understand why people love it as a cult classic.  The giant is charming, and, yeah, the end of his story melted my heart…it’s a film I would recommend to adults and children alike, especially if they love a good sci-fi film with all the fixins.  It might not align with my personal tastes, but it deserves a positive review and I was happy to watch it nonetheless.

4.5/5

Wanna see something reviewed?  Leave a request in the comments!  Thanks for reading, and see ya next week!

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7 thoughts on “Film Review: The Iron Giant (1999)

  1. The use of the 3D animation in the hand-drawn shots looks really interesting — I wonder whether the movie was a pioneer of that technique, like Ralph Bakshi was in interspersing human characters with hand-drawn ones.

    • Hmm…I’m not sure if it was a pioneer, but it had definitely mastered the technique. The animation is blended seamlessly – they did a great job. Speaking of Bakshi, I’m considering reviewing his Lord of the Rings…I haven’t seen it yet.

  2. Pingback: The Iron Giant (1999) | timneath

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