My favourite animated film is THE IRON GIANT. Brad Bird’s big-screen directorial debut is magical, pure and simple. It preserves the central themes of the Ted Hughes story on which it is based, but makes them far more hard-hitting by transporting the story to the USA in the 1950s. I can’t claim to have known all this when I first watched it, but for a number of reasons it still made a profound connection.
Hogarth Hughes (Eli Merienthal) is lonely. His single mom (Jennifer Aniston) is usually at work, he’s usually alone and he has developed an overactive imagination to compensate. A world of late night B-movies and vague fear of being vaporised by the Russians is shaken when a rather large metal man comes into his life, shady government types not far behind…
The Iron Giant came at just the right time for me. When it was released in 1999, I was about Hogarth’s age, and like Hogarth I was an imaginative child. Running around the garden making up my own stories and fighting imaginary enemies was pretty standard. I’d also just studied Ted Hughes’ THE IRON MAN in school, which helped, then one Friday night I came home to find it premiering on late-evening Cartoon Network along with a very pleasant introduction from the Giant himself, Vin Diesel.
The 1950s, as a period of extreme paranoia at the height of the Cold War, with the fear of nuclear attack ever on people’s minds, is the perfect setting for a story about the darker side of human nature and loss of innocence, and allows for a healthy amount of satirical humour and 1950s sci-fi references.
The voice cast are superb, with Eli Marienthal emotionally grounding the story as Hogarth Hughes, the lonely, good-natured and endlessly curious young boy who discovers and befriends the titular giant when he crash lands on Earth. Vin Diesel, though voicing a character of few words, imbues the giant with a childlike innocence, and perfectly conveys the sense of sheer horror as he discovers his own origins. Jennifer Aniston probably gives the performance of her career as Hogarth’s exasperated single mother Annie and John Mahoney is the perfect casting choice as the patriotic but highly moral General Rogard. The real cast highlights are Harry Connick Jr.’s beatnik scrapyard owner and wannabe artist Dean (faltering welcome, “What do you want? I’ve got milk, or, what, milk?”) and Christopher McDonald’s federal agent Kent Mansley (repeated doesn’t-really-mean-anything threat “And all that implies…”. The little character moments make it, from Dean’s resigned flip of his paper as an oncoming tidal wave caused by the Giant playing in a lake, to Mansley’s flustered reaction to an accusatory oven glove staring at him as he tries to explain the impossible situation to his superiors. These animated characters sometimes feel more real than real people.
What really makes The Iron Giant work is the balance it manages to maintain between light-heartedness and incredible darkness. There are loads of great gags it’s true, but then you’re brought crashing back to earth with biting criticisms of the Cold War state of mind (then there’s the stuff in between, such as the creepily cheerful instructional video telling school children what to do in the event of a nuclear holocaust). You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the film’s finale, with Hogarth and the giant’s relationship so well established, and with the addition of the late great Michael Kamen’s beautiful, highly emotive score, be prepared to shed the tears.
To dismiss this as simply a film for children would be moronic. The Iron Giant can speak to everyone, no matter your age or background because Brad Bird is a great storyteller and introduces you to characters you can relate to and actually care about, and the moral of his story is universal. It’s why I’ve been coming back to it time after time since the age of nine, why it always enraptures me, lifts me up and destroys me all over again. SSP