For the return of #TBT Classic Movie reviews, we’re really going with more of a tossback, that fashions itself to be a throwback. But even though it is relatively recent (1999), it was an instant classic.
Many of the best stories are ones that you want to hear again and again. The Iron Giant doesn’t explore much new ground, but the story it tells is done better than most predecessors and imitators alike. There’s a weird, lonely boy, raised by a single, hard-working mother. He looks for friends everywhere, bringing home stray animals, until one night, he brings home a giant robot from outer-space. Intrepid (and annoying) government man investigates reports of strange goings-on in the boy’s small town, eventually discovering the secret – and bringing the full power of the military down on an alien that poses no threat until cornered. Climatic finish when the big government men find out they were wrong about the nature of the alien.
It has its wrinkles, but that’s the basic story. From my own childhood, it’s E.T., or Pete’s Dragon. It’s countless other movies that I can’t name because they don’t resonate like The Iron Giant.
The setting for the oft-told tale is Rockwell (as in Norman), Maine – as wholesome a place as you could hope to find, where you can get your apple pie at the diner where Hogarth’s mom earns her living. The time is the 1950’s, shortly after the Sputnik launch, when American’s are leery of foreign powers. A fisherman with a reputation for drunkenness is the first to see the Giant; he’s ridiculed while telling his story; only Dean, the town’s resident beatnik/artist/junkyard operator, stands up for the man, which cements the “crackpot” assessment. The outcasts are one of the major themes of the movie, as Dean, Hogarth, and the Giant all struggle to find acceptance – and in that struggle, they find each other.
There’s a none-too-subtle critique of the (once and future) arms race that pops up midway through the movie. While the Giant’s origin is never revealed, he is clearly some kind of defensive weapon – whenever he identifies a potentially threatening weapon, his robotic mood changes, and he attempts to destroy the threat. You can imagine how well this goes over with the army and the intrepid (and annoying) government man; being all-too-human, they fail to appreciate their own threatening stance, and take the Giant’s defensive actions as an inherent threat – one which must be eliminated.
It’s in relation to this last point that the film makes its most endearing point. Hogarth and the Giant both struggle with the Giant’s power, especially since neither appears aware of his origin; the struggle intensifies once the Giant becomes aggressive in his programmed defensive mode. Midway through the film, as the relationship starts to turn from wonder to friendship, Hogarth and the Giant are together in the barn at Hogarth’s home, with Hogarth sharing his comic books with the robot. Hogarth and the Giant both notice the resemblance of the Giant’s appearance to Atomo, a villain; but Hogarth believes the Giant is more like Superman, who uses his immense powers for good. The Giant himself prefers to identify with Superman, even when Hogarth and the Giant are playing a form of Heroes and Villains in Dean’s junkyard. In the film’s defining moments, the resounding message is that we draw our power to change the world by our ability to define ourselves, rather than allowing others to define us.
The Iron Giant is a rare movie that just does everything right. Its classic appeal no doubt comes from its 1970’s style animation with a 1950’s setting – the heyday of animation for those of us who grew up on Ralph Bakshi and Rankin & Bass, set in the golden-era of science fiction. The Cold War paranoia is deftly handled, both satirizing our unfounded fears of the time, but moralizing that we still rush to judgment in seeing threats where we have incomplete information. But the messages and the moralizing just support a strong story, rather than overwhelm it. This is a family movie that could have been made 25 years earlier but will still be relevant 25 years from now, and one that’s just so much fun to watch that you’ll enjoy it whether you’re watching it with your kids, your parents, your significant other – or just on your own.