The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant (1999)

“There are two kinds of metal in this yard: scrap and art.”

Coming out of my Olympic movie binge, I thought I’d change things up as much as possible, and go with a film that was as far from a sports movie as I could get. Of course, with the mostly mediocre slate of movies I’d been watching for the last seventeen days, I wanted to pick a movie, from The List of movies I’ve been meaning to see, that I was fairly sure would be excellent. I went with Brad Bird’s animated drama from 1999, The Iron Giant. It was not all I’d hoped it would be.

I’m really of two minds about this movie. On one hand I do see what all comments I’d heard about this movie led me to expect it to be. It has a creative premise, a heartfelt story, and a memorable, bittersweet ending. It is a something of a tribute to an era of classical animation that was coming to an end at the time of the film’s production, and nostalgia is well-woven into it’s DNA. On the other hand, the premise isn’t that creative, once established the plot is completely and disappointingly predictable. The film stops and takes great pains to espouse a particular brand of left-wing ideology that is so intellectually vacant that really undercuts any intelligence the film might otherwise contain. Perhaps most damningly, the film’s primary antagonist is completely unbelievable, and does completely irrational things, not because they make sense for his character, but because they are required to drive the plot along. In spite of all that, I liked the film. I think. Maybe. I definitely didn’t love it.

Set in 1957 the film has a plot that is highly of reminiscent E.T. The main character, Hogarth Hughes is a young boy with few friends, but an active imagination. He soon encounters and eventually befriends a massive robot that has crashed to earth, sustaining a dent to its head that apparently has rendered it to a childlike blank-slate. This plot treads across ground well-traveled by others, and yet it does a remarkable job of feeling fresh. There is a genuine sense of wonder as we first see the world looking up through the eyes of Hogarth, then again, looking down through the eyes of the Iron Giant.

As Hogarth is befriending the machine, and teaching it lessons about humanity, we are introduced to one of the most two-dimensional characters in the history, Kent Manley, an agent of the federal government.
Manley proves to be a completely delusional paranoid nutjob, and maybe I could buy that he’d be the guy in the government, who is recognized as sufficiently useless to be relegated to chasing down shooting stars in rural Maine. However Manley apparently, somehow has the power to go around whatever bureaucratic mechanism runs his office and directly contact senior military officials and bring the full power of the military based on some confused ramblings and a photograph taken from a funny angle.

I appreciate that the mid 1950’s were a time rife with paranoia and worry, but the film seems to take excessive license with that fact. I can’t help but feel the filmmakers sitting comfortably in 1999, sneering smugly down their noses at “those rubes” in the past. As a fan of history, one thing I can’t stand is this type of condescending attitude towards the past, especially towards the recent past. As a fan of film, I additionally can’t stand when this condescension is used as an excuse for lazy storytelling. I get that Manley is supposed to be paranoid and driven to prove himself correct. However, as the film progresses his paranoia radically increases and takes on a sinister edge for no apparent reason. Essentially his two-dimensional character becomes a one-dimensional character for no reason other than to drive the plot to the filmmaker’s desired conclusion.

It is this convenient incompetence and pointless stupidity that robs the emotion from a clearly heartfelt conclusion. This, and the fact that it’s all too predictable. At one point, about a quarter of the way through the film Hogarth and the Giant have a discussion about the soul and mortality, from this point forward the already paint-by-numbers plot becomes 100% predictable, from the major conflict, to the great “heart-wrenching” ending, to the mild mitigation in the dénouement.

I’m finding it very difficult to settle on a rating for this film. Despite all it’s flaws, (and I’m not even going to go into the “guns=bad” moral,) the film has some real strengths. The animation is beautiful, with a seamless blending of traditional and computer-generated techniques resulting in a fantastic piece of visual art. The story while often too predictable still hits most of the right notes and delivers some real emotional moments, even if they are diminished by being achieved cheaply. There are some strong vocal performances, particularly from Harry Connick Jr. as beatnik/father-figure, Dean, and from Vin Diesel (with the aid of some impressive sound editing, I’m sure,) as the Giant. At one point or another, I’ve seriously considered all four of my potential ratings for this film, but in the end I really do believe that it’s worth seeing, but it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

[The Iron Giant (1999) – Directed by Brad Bird – Rated PG for fantasy action and mild language]

OM|ED Rating: Worth Seeing