If 1999 is an important year in cinema history – which most believe it to be – The Iron Giant is arguably the most important single film in the entire year’s canon, beginning as it does a great trend of films both wonderful and abysmal we have not yet escaped from: films based off of Pete Townshend concept albums.
I kid. But The Iron Giant is important for what it reveals about the year 1999: the trend of important directorial debuts, either formal “first film” debuts or debuts into the mainstream by independent directors who had directed a film or two before-hand. One does not need to have seen any films from 1999 to understand the importance of the directors that emerged from the thick of the eye of the millennial storm to shape the contours of cinema for the ensuing fifteen years. If some of these films seem wobbly today, they at least signaled the arrival of important cinematic voices for the ensuing decades.
At the very least, The Iron Giant reveals that the trend was not bound only to live-action films. Certainly not as rapturously canonical a director as a great many other filmmakers in the ensuing years, Brad Bird is nonetheless loved by many, although his debut feature is more a generally agreed upon cult classic than a blockbuster status-quo shifter. While his later Ratatouille was a beloved popular hit, The Iron Giant was a grower, a sneaky word-of-mouth rolling tornado that picked up storm for the better part of several years until it attained an agreed upon status as underground hit beloved by a generation. An effect that has made The Iron Giant into a battle of competing expectations and loud, large picket signs declaring which side of the picket fence its supporters stand on. It has also had the effect of making the film out to be both underrated and, if we are honest, probably a tad overrated by those who proclaim it as one of the undying masterpieces of animated cinema.
It is, however, a noble, often wonderful treat of a film altogether. It isn’t a meaningfully transformative work, but at a basic compositional level it is hard to deny the often sublime heights Bird and his team of storytellers and animators concocted. The film tells the story of young Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) growing up in Rockwell, Maine (likely a nod to Norman Rockwell, whose playful depictions of hard-won, gee-whiz Americana serve as a base for The Iron Giant, not to mention most of Bird’s subsequent films in one form or another). Generally bored by life outside of the comic books and Atomic Age B-movies he religiously watches, he is granted the gift of friendship one day when a metal man, literally The Iron Giant (Vin Diesel), falls from the sky into his neighborhood and forms an uneasy bond with Hogarth. A bond, of course, that he has to be kept secret from his mother (Annie, played by Jennifer Aniston), a beatnik artist named Dean (Harry Connick Jr.) Hogarth befriends to hide the monster, and especially from Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), a government agent sent to investigate after local sightings of the Giant continue to pop up and scare the locals.
So we have a simple tale of a boy and his giant robot, and Bird’s storytelling balances the lithe simplicity of the material with genuine emotional heft. The piece is a direct, almost mythical story of American imagination that tells a tale both pressingly intimate and potently universal, tackling themes of belonging and personal identity with the elegance of a classical fable. There are moments of levity – Hogarth bonds with the Giant as he comes to terms with their mutually plucky outsider status – that rival classic Chuck Jones shorts, models of wit and economy in their day (they still are, of course). But the comedy is always undercut by the common, non-condescending tale of longing and belonging drawing together the two outcasts.
The real showpiece of the film is the luminous animation though, particularly for the titular metal monstrosity with a heart of … iron? The Giant is given life as a minimalist assembly of geometric shapes hashed together into a ruthless Frankensteinian collage of childhood emotion, given life not only by Bird’s team of animators but the guttural cries of one Vin Diesel voicing the character pre-fame and doing an exceedingly great job depicting a being coming to terms with the whole gamut of human emotion for the first time. Watching the character play with the world of small town Maine in 1950s America is the chiefest joy of the film, especially in light of the expressionist-tinged animation for the bucket of bolts, playing on ’50s noir and flash-bang comic books in equal measure and seeming exactly like the dream-construct of a young loner-ish male circa 1955 come to life. The introduction of the character – as a pair of piercing yellow circles surrounded by impenetrable darkness – grants him all the ungodly mystique of America’s worst nightmares, and Bird and co. displayed the foresight to coat the character’s CG in paint to avoid the garish plastic qualities of the many CG accompaniments within Disney’s otherwise hand-drawn animation efforts around this time.
Not that the rest of the film is any kind of slouch, although Bird’s fascination for the Giant himself is plainly apparent throughout. Hogarth himself is a great achievement, equal parts sky-high innocence and melancholy bundle of nerves, and voiced by young Eli Marienthal, he is one of the great animated movie creations of the 1990s. Another highlight is the over-exaggerated G-Man pastiche Mansley, who is treated like a ruthless pile of lines and angles that afford the character no humanity and perfectly mock the stereotype of chiseled, no-nonsense Americans so common in fiction from the era. The highlight of the film, arguably, is no one character but the backgrounds, given equally to the mundane domesticity of everyday Rockwell Americana and the chiaroscuro nightmares of so many children during the time period. The depth of field in the film is mesmerizing, consistently invigorating with the sheer z-axis movement toward and away from the camera and constructing Rockwell as a truly lived-in movie location, something not even Disney was achieving around this time.
Released in 1999, The Iron Giant was a breath of fresh air, positioned right as Disney’s Second Golden Age was losing its luster rapidly and Pixar was quickly becoming the new big kid in the neighborhood. Of course, Bird was grabbed up by that company right after the release of The Iron Giant (he had worked with them more than a decade before), but his entrance into the big leagues did little to devour his omnivorous interest in humankind at its most innocent, nor to mute his commitment to a time when science and fiction meant a wide-eyed dreamer’s quest for the future of humankind rather than a pensive cynicism toward the human condition.
Certainly not the recipe for the most realist or complex treatment of emotion, but then Bird is at his best when his emotions are flying highest on their own lack of complication. All these years later, there’s a fruitful and elegant simplicity to The Iron Giant’s emotions, not to mention its animation quality. As much as Bird finds hopeful, if naïve, comfort in the former glory of past days, The Iron Giant itself marks a different time in animation when 2D reigned supreme and a boy and his giant were all that was necessary to provide inspired entertainment. For all 1999 marks an era of new beginnings in the film world, it also marks a closure. The Iron Giant is an eternal reminder of a different time in animation history when children dreamed in two dimensions. It arguably seems like a lost time today, and because it feels so lost and so different, it feels all the more pressing, all the more lively, and all the more hopeful.