Monday, November 5, 2012

The Iron Giant (1999) - Fine Animation, But Not as Kid-Friendly as Others

The Iron Giant: A Lonely Boy With Nothing to Do, Except Rule with his Warrior Robot

The Iron Giant 1999
The Iron Giant" (1999).
Brad Bird, now a top dog at Pixar (especially after both writing and directing "The Incredibles"), created this animated fable "The Iron Giant" (1999) at Warner Brothers about a boy and his robot. The story itself comes from a  book which was originally called (in England) "The Iron Man," but which became "The Iron Giant" upon release in America because of another book with a somewhat similar title.

The Iron Giant 1999

You can pretty much date films by the primary relationship of the boy in them. In the 1800s, it would have been a boy and his slave ("Huckleberry Finn"). In the 1950s, it was a boy and his dog ("Lassie"). The 1980s invariably had a boy and his alien friend ("E.T.). Now, it is a boy and his robot. Funny how the stories always work out similarly in the end.

Hogarth The Iron Giant 1999
Hogarth and his mom.
Nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) is being raised by his mom (naturally, the absence of a father is never really explained). He becomes friends with someone unique. The friend is an innocent alien giant robot (Vin Diesel) with a cool retro design that came from outer space, where he served as an interstellar weapon. He can fly and take on invading armies all by himself, but all he wants to do is learn a little about Superman.

The Iron Giant 1999
Just relaxing in a meadow.
Naturally, there is more to the story than that. It turns out that a paranoid U.S. Government agent named Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) is determined to destroy the giant at all costs. He arrives in town and immediately starts snooping around. It wouldn't be a party without a heavy, right?

The Iron Giant 1999
Robot at rest.
Hogarth wants to protect his friend - who wouldn't? He keeps The Iron Giant at his friend Dean McCoppin's (Harry Connick, Jr.) in Dean's junkyard. Always handy for a kid to have a friend with a junkyard. In the end, it isn't Hogarth who protects his friend, but the other way around.

Hogarth and robot The Iron Giant 1999
Talking to his new friend.
Despite all the big names in the cast, such as Jennifer Aniston as the mother, this was not a major hit upon release. As Brad Bird became more famous/notorious, though, this film has resurfaced and done well on DVD. This film is "critically acclaimed," and for good reason.

The Iron Giant 1999

The animation is top-notch, the voices are done to perfection, and the story isn't loaded with gimmicks like musical numbers and the like. There is a cozy 1950s ambiance that gives the film a retro feel. Comparisons to Steven Spielberg's "E.T." are inevitable.  "E.T." was a smash hit, but nobody went to see this film. Why?

The Iron Giant 1999
Hogarth teaching the Iron Giant.
Bird, incidentally, was mentored by Disney Legend Milt Kahl. Kahl taught Bird valuable lessons, as Bird outlined in a 1999 interview:
“For me, it was like an actor getting to work with Olivier or Spencer Tracy. He taught me to never quit. He told me that it’s important to have high standards and to let yourself go until you hit them. I remember one day I was fawning over his draftsmanship. He could turn anything in space and his scenes were impecably drawn. He told me, ‘I’m not a great draftsman. I just don’t quit easily’. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard ‘You haven’t got a prayer’. To anyone who’s out there reading this and has something different that they are going to do…just grit you teeth and get what you want onto the screen.”

The Iron Giant 1999
He doesn't know his own strength.
There's a backstory to this film which is of interest to rock fans. In 1989, musician Pete Townsend of The Who" released a rock musical based on writer Ted Hughes' 1960's sci-fi novel, "The Iron Man." Townsend composed the music, of course, and two of the CD tracks include vocals by the three surviving members of the musical group The Who (Townsend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle). So, it was like a little The Who reunion. A stage version of Townsend's production was performed at the Old Vic Theater in England in 1993, and this gave Townsend and idea. He suggested the musical as an animated feature film to Warner Brothers.

The Iron Giant 1999

Warners liked the idea but not the musical, so it decided to option the original novel instead and did a very different adaptation of the story, which is now called "The Iron Giant" after the American title. They put animator and director Brad Bird at the helm. Townsend was rewarded by receiving a producer credit on the final film. He wasn't upset; in fact, he was pleased. He told the press, “Well, whatever, I got paid.”

The Iron Giant 1999
I would be nervous if I were Hogarth.
It is hard to say why "The Iron Giant" did not do better at the box office. Poor marketing played a role, as did the fact that the central character, a giant robot, simply isn't that warm and cuddly.  Little kids are more apt to want to see kids about cute little smurfs, cute little turtles, cute little penguins, cute little talking cars or cute little toys.  No matter how hard they try, animators can't turn pictures of towering robots into something cute and little.  You always have the creeping suspicion that, like King Kong, this giant beast might turn on its human friend at any time as it literally holds the boy in the palm of its hand.  The Iron Giant also has a character-less face. You must rely on the boy character for all that, and smiling boys are a dime a dozen, and that can be done better in normal films than in animation anyway.  All this hurts when compared to cute little smiling dinosaurs and cute little smiling smurfs and...

The Iron Giant 1999
This looks just like the classic "War of the Worlds." I assume it is an intentional homage.
Still, it is a quality film. There are even some nice nods to classics such as "War of the Worlds." It just isn't as accessible for kids as, say, "Shrek" or "Toy Story" or "The Land Before Time."  But they might learn to like it, given the chance.

The Iron Giant 1999


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