Partially based on the novel; The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, 1999’s The Iron Giant is an incredible achievement in both storytelling and animation. Tackling ambitious themes and complex animation techniques for the time through its near-seamless blend of hand-drawn and CG animation, The Iron Giant is a captivating and uplifting animated sci-fi adventure with plenty of humour and heart entrenched in its story. And while perhaps not the peak of director Brad Bird’s filmography, with The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol all serving as stiff competition. As far as directorial debuts go, The Iron Giant was undoubtedly a curtain-raiser for Bird and his team.
Plot Summary: When a massive metal automaton, sent from somewhere in the black void of outer space, crash-lands on Earth just outside the small town of Rockwell, Maine. Eleven-year-old, Hogarth Hughes, stumbles across the android and quickly strikes up a friendship with the giant. But, unbeknownst to Hogarth, U.S. government agent, Kent Mansley, has his sights set on finding the extraterrestrial visitor and will stop at nothing to ensure its destruction…
Whilst The Iron Giant bears little resemblance to the novel it’s based upon, the stories behind both the novel and the film’s creation are tragic yet fascinating. As originally, the author of the novel, Ted Hughes, wrote the story as a way of comforting his children after the suicide of their mother, Sylvia Plath. Similarly, Brad Bird was in part inspired to adapt the novel as a memorial to his sister, Susan Bird, emphasising the anti-gun message of the story as she was shot by her estranged husband in a murder-suicide in 1989. His initial pitch was this; “What if a Gun Had a Soul and Didn’t Want to be a Gun?” And even if the title of the adaptation (and subsequently the titular character’s name), was later changed to The Iron Giant to avoid confusion with the renowned comic book character, Iron Man. This underlining theme has always been associated with the character and is weaved into the narrative exceptionally.
The main voice cast of Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., and Christopher McDonald all do a fantastic job as the central clump of well-defined characters, portraying them as surprisingly grounded personalities for an animated flick. However, the most significant member of the cast has to be Vin Diesel as the Iron Giant himself. Sharing similarities with his later role as Groot/Baby Groot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Diesel only speaks a total of fifty-three words throughout the entire runtime, excluding yells and groans. Yet, even with these limited lines, Diesel provides the enormous android with a suitably weighty voice and plenty of amusing/endearing moments.
On account of The Iron Giant being the first traditionally animated film to feature a principal character that is entirely computer-generated, there are a few scenes where cracks have begun to form in the animation and the animated cinematography. However, for the most part, the visuals on display throughout The Iron Giant are magnificent as the film contains an extensive amount of vibrant and alluring shots that meld both animation techniques. Many of these shots also make superb use of the remote, coastal setting of Rockwell, as well as the 1950s time period.
The original score by the late Michael Kamen is largely superior to a number of other orchestral scores for animated family flicks, with the acclaimed track; No Following, standing as a beautiful yet heart-rending composition that considerably enriches the final act. Further tracks, such as The Eye of the Storm and Souls Don’t Die, are pleasant to listen to and serve their purpose within the story, despite not being particularly memorable.
Another noteworthy aspect of The Iron Giant is how the film takes inspiration from classic sci-fi films of the 1950s. Intentionally playing into many of the staples of the science fiction genre around that time, including the widespread fears of nuclear war and Earth being invaded by creatures from another world. This ’50s inspiration even extends to the character designs with the appearance of the Iron Giant himself, who is instantly recognisable as a result of his atomic-age headpiece. Furthermore, the tentacles that emerge from the Iron Giant’s back during the final act are an unmistakable visual homage to one of the most well-known extraterrestrial films in cinematic history; The War of the Worlds, released in 1953.
In summary, whilst it still saddens me that The Iron Giant was such a box office failure upon its initial release, only grossing around £19 million on an estimated budget of £58 million. I am delighted that the film has gone on to become such a cult classic, predominately through positive word-of-mouth, no less. Releasing on August 6th 1999, the same day as The Sixth Sense, The Iron Giant was commercially overshadowed immediately out of the gate. Moreover, following the success of Toy Story in 1995, The Iron Giant was released at a time when hand-drawn animation was being superseded by CGI. So much so, that Warner Bros. Pictures was in the process of shutting down its traditional animation division during the film’s production. And yet, The Iron Giant still flourished in spite of all these obstacles, which, in my opinion, is a testament to the efforts of Brad Bird and his masterful team of animators and creatives. Rating: low 8/10.