Two months ago, “Die Hard” was my favorite movie of all time. I still think it’s one of the few perfect movies ever made but, thinking back, it never changed how I look at my life. It’s a magnificent movie to watch with a lot of substance, but there’s nothing in there I try to live by. That’s why I love “The Iron Giant.” It may sound cheesy, and I agree with you to a degree. Trying to live my life by the ideals of a giant robot that’s trying to emulate Superman is a little silly. What makes it not silly is the central message of the film, but we can get to that later.
First, let’s look at the plot. It’s a relatively simple science fiction template. In 1957, while the United States is looking up at Sputnik, a giant space robot crash lands off the coast of a small town in Maine. The giant eats cars and TV antennas until he finds an electric power plant. That’s when young Hogarth Hughes finds him. When the giant starts to munch on live wires, Hogarth saves him by turning off the power. That makes the giant his friend forever, and now all Hogarth has to do is keep the robot a secret from his mother and the federal government, filled with cold warriors.
“The Iron Giant,” like “Princess Mononoke,” is a perfect example of the kind of freedom that’s found in animation. Imagine if this movie were a live-action flick. The special effects budget would be huge, in the $200-$300 million range. However, it was made for a fraction of the cost and it looks beautiful. The animation is some of the most fluid Western-made animation that I’ve ever seen. All of the character models look and feel impressively human, even the giant with his subtle yet effective facial expressions. The iron giant is surprisingly likable for a huge hunk of living metal. He looks unsophisticated, like the skeleton of a skyscraper with a steam shovel mouth and big round eyes. We start to feel for the big guy because of the way he looks and moves like us.
Like “Princess Mononoke” and Hayao Miyazaki’s other films, “The Iron Giant” is happy to be a “real movie” in everything but live action. This isn’t a Disney classic kind of movie. There aren’t singing birds flying around, no musical numbers, no happily ever after. It’s a story, plain and simple. The director, Brad Bird, is an animation master who directed Pixar’s greatest film, “The Incredibles,” in 2004. It’s no coincidence that he made two of the best animated movies of all time. Brad Bird’s films, from time to time, make me forget I’m just looking at fake people on a screen, because the story and the characters are so compelling.
The film is set in the 1950s not just because of the amazing sci-fi films from that time, but because of the Cold War. That’s the decade when science fiction seemed most preoccupied with nuclear holocaust and invaders from outer space. Films like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” were all over the place. “The Iron Giant” includes a hilarious yet spooky homage to old educational films like “Duck and Cover,” in which kids were advised to seek shelter under their desks from a nearby nuclear blast.
The film’s “villain” is a FBI agent named Kent Mansley, who only sees the iron giant as a Soviet plot to undermine and destroy the United States. While not Russian, we find that Mansley may not be far off. The giant is loaded to the brim with weaponry, and the only reason he is not going on a rampage is because of a bump on the head he received falling to Earth. Which leads me to the basic message of the film: The iron giant learns from a little boy and Superman comics that he is not doomed to be a weapon because “you
are what you choose to be.”
You are what you choose to be.
There is something about that one phrase that hits me to my core. It seems obvious, like it’s just a common-sense phrase and it should be. However, I noticed something last year when I watched “Man of Steel.” Superman, a character born out of hope and inspiration, turned into a symbol of dark, brooding anger and fear. Maybe it’s just me, but seeing “The Iron Giant” made me think about myself in ways no other movie really has.
“The Iron Giant” isn’t as visually perfect as “Die Hard” is, but it makes up for that by being the most heartfelt, sweet, and charming movie I’ve ever seen in my life.