Before he struck it big with Disney, Pixar and The Incredibles, director Brad Bird helmed this minor delight of a movie for Warner Bros. which, sadly, almost nobody ever saw when it first came out. A well-deserved cult status followed its release on home video, however, paving the way for its director to move on to bigger and, although it’s difficult to believe, even better efforts than this.
Superficially, the movie might seem derivative to some people. It certainly shares some common narrative DNA. Like Spielberg’s E.T., the film deals with a fatherless boy who befriends an innocent visitor from outer space and protects it from fearful authorities. In case, of course, the new arrival is not a diminutive rubber alien but a 100-foot-tall robot with an appetite for scrap metal. Upon landing it whacked itself on the head and has now forgotten why it came here. When it encounters young Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal), it starts following him around like a lost puppy, something that Hogarth is definitely not allowed to have by his mother, Annie (voice of Jennifer Aniston).
Hiding this very large new friend is not easy and it’s made even harder by the arrival of a snoopy government man, Kent Mansley (voice of Christopher McDonald). It’s 1957, right after the launch of Sputnik, which makes Mansley excessively jumpy at the thought of things from space landing in rural Maine.
Hogarth’s only ally is the town’s local bohemian, junk dealer and artist Dean McCoppin (voice of Harry Connick, Jr.), whose junk yard provides a ready-made hiding place (and food supply) for the giant (voice of Vin Diesel) as Hogarth tries to the divert the attention of Mansley, who’s having a hard time convincing his superior, General Rogard (John Mahoney), that there is a 100-foot-tall robot running amuck in Maine.
Whatever its narrative relationship to E.T., The Iron Giant carves its own space with more mature themes about a nonviolent response to paranoia and references to other Cold War tales like George Pal’s version of War of the Worlds. Also, the film features gorgeous, fluid animation reminiscent of the golden days of Disney features. The artists behind The Iron Giant give their title character a remarkably expressive performance, especially given the necessary limits imposed on Diesel’s vocal efforts.
If, like me, you are a huge fan of Brad Bird’s other efforts, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but haven’t yet discovered this gem, you owe to yourself to check it out. Bird has gone on record saying that he considers animation to be an art form and not just a genre of movies targeted to young kids. With this movie, he proves that the form can be used to tell a surprisingly mature tale that appeals to a wide range of ages.