The Iron Giant (1999)

reviewed by
Edward Johnson-Ott


The Iron Giant (1999) Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel, Christopher McDonald, James Gammon, Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney, M. Emmet Walsh. Executive producer, Pete Townsend. Produced by Allison Abbate and Des McAnuff. Music by Michael Kamen. Screen story by Brad Bird. Screenplay by Tim McCanlies, based on the book "The Iron Man" by Ted Hughes. Directed by Brad Bird. 87 minutes. Rated PG, 4.5 stars (out of five stars)

Review by Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly www.nuvo-online.com Archive reviews at http://us.imdb.com/M/reviews_by?Edward+Johnson-ott To receive reviews by e-mail at no charge, send subscription requests to pbbp24a@prodigy.com

During a Los Angeles press junket last May, a group of reporters, in town to cover another movie, were invited to a late evening screening of "The Iron Giant." By the time we were herded into the theater, most of us were tired and less than enthusiastic at the prospect of sitting through a feature-length cartoon. But 87 minutes later, as the end credits began scrolling up the screen, we broke into a warm round of applause and spent the ride back to the hotel happily jabbering like little kids. Since returning home, I've seen the movie two more times.

Films of this caliber don't come along very often. With a smart script, expressive characters and a skillful mix of humor and sentiment, "The Iron Giant" offers as many pleasures for adults as it does for children. Here's another treat: unlike traditional Disney-style cartoons, the feature has no wacky sidekicks or musical numbers. Hallelujah!

Inspired by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes' book, "The Iron Giant" is set in 1957 America, during the height of Cold War paranoia. When a local fisherman enters a diner in picturesque Rockwell, Maine, blathering about a giant metal creature that came crashing out of the sky, no one believes him. No one except feisty 9-year old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), the only child of single mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston), who works in the eatery.

That night, Hogarth goes exploring in the deep woods and encounters a 50- foot tall robot (Vin Diesel) attempting to eat the town's power plant. When the massive creature bites into a transformer and gets zapped, Hogarth comes to the rescue and a friendship is forged. Following the crash and the near-fatal electric sandwich, the giant has lost his memory, so Hogarth begins to teach the powerful behemoth the ways of his new world.

Fearful of how others would react to the robot, Hogarth seeks the assistance of beatnik sculptor/junkyard owner Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) in hiding the mechanical being. Matters grow more complicated with the arrival of Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), a smarmy, suspicious and very determined government agent investigating the situation. Then, during a play session with a toy ray gun, Hogarth learns that the giant might not be as gentle as he thought.

Writer and director Brad Bird ("The Simpsons," "King of the Hill") says he changed the time period of the story to the '50s because "America was at a crossroads. We were learning to live with the atom bomb; the space race was just beginning; paranoia was at a high; and all of this got into the movies of the time... giant ants and mutated Martian men. That's a pretty funny response to all of those influences. So if you're going to have a story about a human boy who befriends a metal man, it's fitting to put it into the context of the fear that existed at the time."

Good thinking. A great part of "The Iron Giant's" charm comes from the retro drawing style and well-placed period details. Hogarth watches cheesy monster movies on his black and white TV, schoolchildren are subjected to ludicrously cheerful "duck and cover" films in the classroom and newspapers echo the sentiments of the era with headlines that scream "DISASTER SEEN AS CATASTROPHE LOOMS." Worries about the ever-present "Red Menace" are echoed in everything from comic books to the film's palette - - note the color change when a key object shifts to weapons-mode.

Michael Kamen deserves praise for his witty and stirring score, and for selecting evocative music without resorting to the same tired golden- oldies employed in so many other period films.

The look of the robot also fits the '50s setting. With a dome-shaped head, eyes that resemble searchlights, an angular jaw and massive body plates held together by an elaborate array of nuts, bolts and gears, he is simply the coolest robot ever. The filmmakers do a fine job making the giant seem simultaneously childlike and awe-inspiring. They also adroitly mix sound effects and visuals to give us a palpable sense of the incredible weight and bulk of the creature.

For a film as simply drawn as "The Iron Giant," the key characters' faces are remarkably expressive, particularly those of Hogarth and his beatnik buddy Dean. Between Hogarth's chipped front tooth and exasperated eye rolling and Dean's wry glances from his lowered sunglasses, the two are more believable than most flesh and blood performers. Voicing the pair, Eli Marienthal and Harry Connick Jr. hit all the right notes to complete the illusion.

Due to the story structure, Annie is relegated to the background, which is a shame because Jennifer Aniston gives the character real vitality. I also regretted seeing only lily white faces in Rockwell. For a movie as thoughtful and humane as this, the lack of ethnic diversity was disappointing.

Thankfully, those were about the only disappointing aspects of the film. The production shines because the creative team made sure they had a rich, emotionally satisfying story to match their drawings. With lots of laughs, a dandy message, a strong sense of wonder and sentimentality that never becomes cloying, "The Iron Giant" is a classic. Get ready to feel like a kid again.

 1999 Ed Johnson-Ott

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