Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant mixes adult themes about over-encroaching governments and biting political commentary with humor, heart, and a true soul. To say this film is anything less than one of the preeminent animated films of our time is to do it injustice. I do not believe any movie has been able to so deftly weave in a message as powerful as this one with a kid-friendly animated story. For a film about a “giant metal man,” The Iron Giant is anything but mechanical.
This film, despite its 1958 Cold War setting, explores topics very relevant to modern American foreign policy. The Iron Giant portrays the US as a highly expansionistic, militaristic nation with interventionist tendencies, playing off of the common beliefs about nuclear war at the time. However, it manages to do so subtly enough that it never feels like it is preaching to its audience – while there is a powerful anti-war sentiment towards the end of the film, it doesn’t go so far as to insult the military or degrade the nation as movies tackling this issue tend to do.
And then, it even works as a sci-fi film, grabbing the attention of the audience from the get-go with an exciting, mysterious opening scene. Sci-fi? Politics? Family values? This movie has got it all.
Hogarth (Marienthal), the protagonist, is an eleven-year-old child with a widow for a mother who has no real friends from school, and often entertains himself outdoors as his mother (Aniston) tries to earn a living. At first, the character almost seems annoying due to his mannerisms and chatty personality, but over time, it becomes apparent that he is absolutely a realistic portrayal of a child who has been left to his own devices, but is undeniably kind and gregarious in nature and who is only looking for companionship (and a father). Throughout the film, the audience is given more backstory to who he is and this allows us to empathize with him, making the climax that much more gripping.
The giant also manages to become an endearing character as the movie progresses, with subtle voice acting talent from Vin Diesel himself. I believe it is safe to say that this is the best thing Vin Diesel has ever done. That goes without saying. In fact, picking him to play the giant with a limited vocabulary ironically gave him the opportunity to be the most affecting. The Iron Giant‘s incredible relationship with Hogarth evolves as a classic story of friendship that is both organic and believable.
A brilliant edition to the cast comes from Harry Connick, Jr., who plays the beat generation hipster Dean. His role is the shining star of the film. He could easily have been underplayed or overly clichéd, as his character description would allow for either scenario, but fortunately his dialogue, delivery, and place in the story are so well thought-out that he never has the chance to flounder. Equal par
The last character to finish off the cast is the wonderfully headstrong, slightly crazy and progressively aggressive government agent Kent Mansley (McDonald) whose choices throughout the story ultimately lead to the powerful climax. Unlikable in the best way, Mansley represents everything that was bad about the McCarthy/Red Scare era in US history.
I keep mentioning the movie’s climax, but it’s for good reason. At first the conclusion seems contrived, but the brilliance of its execution helps overcome this fact. The last 20 minutes will stick with you for days afterward. Of course, the animation is top-notch as well. The hand-drawn environments and character movement, as well as voice-to-mouth alignment, make this a visual spectacle that can be referred to as nothing less than art. The soundtrack compliments the visuals as well, rounding out the AV experience.
The Iron Giant remains Brad Bird’s genre-defining masterwork and will remain his best piece unless he somehow outdoes what is essentially perfection. Ratatouille and The Incredibles were fun, but they can’t possibly measure up. In fact, I’d say most Pixar films would even find it difficult to compare themselves, mostly because, aside from Up, none deal with adult themes like The Iron Giant. Your biggest competition remains Miyazaki’s epic, Spirited Away – and for that, I applaud you, Mr. Bird. You should be honored to be in such impressive company. You’ve got the Western front covered.
Verdict: Movie Win