Monday, December 21, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #130 - The Iron Giant (1999, dir. Brad Bird)

I first watched The Iron Giant in the fall of 1999, just a few months after graduating from college. Had I seen this film between the ages of seven and twelve, it would be one of my top ten all-time favorites. As it stands, this film still ranks very high for me and my opinion of it only improves with additional viewings. Despite the fact that The Iron Giant failed to find an audience upon its release sixteen years ago, time has shown that Brad Bird’s debut film succeeds as both an enduring story of childhood adventure and an entertaining comment on recent history and political science.  

Bird introduces the film’s tone of Cold War paranoia by setting it in the fall of 1957 and opening with an establishing shot of Earth from space as a newly launched Sputnik whizzes by in orbit. A moment later, something streaks past the camera, races toward Earth, and plummets into a raging storm. Who or what fell remains ambiguous during this sequence, but the mystery won’t last long. Once the action settles into the small, coastal town of Rockwell, Maine, we meet Hogarth, a precocious boy hungry for friendship and excitement. Hogarth soon follows signs that something in the woods is eating metal and he stumbles upon the giant metal robot that fell from space. Hogarth’s discovery fills him with joy but he knows he must exercise caution as he teaches this Iron Giant to survive on Earth. Hogarth, who himself is in need of a role model, takes on the task of modeling his behavior for the Giant. During these sequences Bird captures restless and avid boyhood just as I remember it. In one of the film’s best moments Hogarth shares his comic books with the Giant and casually establishes a hero/villain dynamic between Hogarth’s favorite, Superman, and a killer robot named Atomo, who resembles the Giant. Saddled with this confusing paradigm, Hogarth assures the Giant that he’s a good guy and restates the film’s mantra, “you are who you choose to be.” It’s worth noting that Vin Diesel’s effective yet minimal voice performance as the Giant predates his work as the beloved ambulatory tree, Groot, from last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy by fifteen years. Although Bird loves the style of the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Iron Giant delves into social and political themes of the day with greater depth and nuance than you might expect from a “kids’ movie.” Undercutting Hogarth’s fascination with science fiction daydreams, Bird recreates a “Duck and Cover” film for elementary school students and demonstrates the deadly fear of nuclear war and flimsy comforts under which this generation of children lived and learned. The character of Dean, a beatnik sculptor, voices repeatedly the need to embrace those who don’t conform to society’s expectations. Weaving xenophobic hysteria together with an over-zealous show of force from the government and military, the story serves as a cautionary tale that resonates strongly in this country’s current political environment. Is this strange visitor really a child’s friend or a threat to our way of life? The film’s powerful ending and refusal to shy away from the high stakes of the story function as indicators of a confident director with substance, vision, and style who was just getting started.  

In addition to The Iron Giant’s triumph as a single film, it also serves as a statement of purpose for one of the most innovative mainstream directors of the last 20 years. Elements of The Iron Giant run throughout Bird’s four subsequent films. Bird’s two Pixar films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, both champion challenging conventional wisdom and underscore the value of listening to disenfranchised characters. For Bird’s first live action feature, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, he revives the series by returning to a Cold War antagonism with Russian villains and a missing nuclear weapon. Tomorrowland, which opened this summer, features characters facing the future with a choice highly reminiscent of the mantra Hogarth shares with the Giant. The Iron Giant manages the rare accomplishment of rekindling the exuberance of childhood and examining the absurdity of adulthood while telling a story that is as timeless as it is rewatchable.       

-         John Parsell

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