When I was a wee rodent there was a book in the school library called The Iron Man that I read many times. It’s a simple little fable, about a boy named Hogarth who befriends a giant robot of mysterious origin…and then the robot saves the world from a colossal alien dragon the size of Australia.
I can’t honestly say I loved the book but it definitely stuck with me, as any novel featuring a continent sized extra-terrestrial dragon would and it’s picked up a largish following in the years since it was first published in 1968. One of those fans was Pete Townshend, the lead singer of that famous band.
Townshend adapted the story into a musical, the rights of which got picked up by Warner Bros, which had just swallowed Turner Feature Animation whole, along with most of its animators. One of those animators was a likely lad named Brad Bird, who has worked on some animation in his time and is generally understood to know what he’s doing. Bird was put in charge of adapting Townshend’s musical, which he did by making it…not a musical. ‘Kay. Regardless, when it was screened for test audiences the response was absolutely ecstatic. Unfortunately, Warner Bros had neglected to prepare any kind of marketing campaign for the movie because Quest for Camelot had tanked so badly the year before. This had convinced the excecs that audiences weren’t going to go see animated films that weren’t made by Disney.
Goddamit Warners. Quest for Camelot didn’t tank because audiences wouldn’t take a punt on non-Disney animation. Quest for Camelot tanked because sometimes God pays attention. So of course, released into theatres with zero publicity The Iron Giant crashed harder than a giant alien death machine falling from the sky. In the years since, it has become one of the most critically beloved animated American films of the 1990s. Does it live up to the hype? Let’s take a look.
So it’s 1957 and off the coast of Maine, where 98% of all creepy shit happens, a fishing vessel is caught in a hurricane. The skipper, a guy named Earl, sees what he thinks is a lighthouse…which then turns and looks at him. A massive giant shape (possibly made from iron?) smashes into the boat and Earl washes up on shore, lucky to be alive.
The next day we meet our hero, a little boy named Hogarth (Eli Marienthal). He lives with his mother Annie (Jennifer Anniston) who works in the local diner. Hogarth’s a bright kid who was bumped up a grade and now gets the snot beaten out of him by the older kids for the privilege. He doesn’t really have any friends, except for a cool beatnik named Dean (Harry Connick Junior) who eats in the diner. Dean and Hogarth overhear Earl ranting about invaders from Mars to the local oafs who give him the laugh. Dean says that he saw it too and Hogarth is thrilled but Dean sheepishly admits that he didn’t actually see it but that “If we don’t stick up for the kooks, who will?” Annie doesn’t really have a problem with Hogarth hanging around with Dean (fifties, simpler time) even though when she first meets him Hogarth’s pet squirrel has run up his trouser leg and into his pants, causing him to make faces like this:
I give you: One of the all time sexiest male animated characters. You goddamn freaks.
I kid, I kid. Dean is an awesome character.
Annie works a lot of nights which means Hogarth has to spend a lot of time on his own, time he fills productively by eating junkfood and watching really bad sci-fi movies. One night, the TV antenna goes mysteriously missing and Hogarth sees a trail of destruction leading into the forest. As this is clearly the work of filthy, American TV-hating commies, Hogarth locks and loads his BB gun and goes looking for payback. What he finds is a fifty foot tall alien robot eating steel pylons in the local power plant.
So let’s talk about the giant.
I WANT TO MARRY HIM. I WANT TO BE HIS LITTLE MOUSE WIFE. I WANT HIM TO HOLD ME IN THE PALM OF HIS IRON HAND AS WE GO ON MAGICAL ADVENTURES.
HERE IS A SONG I WROTE
MOUSE AND GIANT.
MOUSE AND GIANT.
THEY LOVE EACH OTHER AND THEY GO ON ADVENTURES.
THEY WERE MARRIED.
IN A TASTEFUL CEREMONY.
AND NOW THEY BATTLE EVIL WIZARDS ALL AROUND THE WORLD.
MOUSE AND GIANT
MOUSE AND GIANT
NO ONE CAN COME BETWEEN THEIR LOVE.
(It’s a work in progress.)
The design is just smurges. Smurgetacular. Smurge-a-goddamn-riffic. All ray-gun chic and big puppy dog eyes. He’s entirely CGI but it’s integrated with the animation so flawlessy you wouldn’t even notice it. And Vin Diesel is perfectly cast as the giant, although his voice had to be significantly altered in post production to make it less metallic, growling and giant-like than it is in real life.
Hogarth befriends the giant after saving him from being electrocuted. The giant behaves like a child and follows Hogarth home despite the kid’s repeated insistence that he stay in the forest. They come to some railway tracks…
The giant pulls up some of the track to eat it and ends up getting beaned by the train as he tries to fix it on Hogarth’s insistence. The giant is badly damaged and Hogarth decides he’s got to hide him at home.
“GIANT…HEARD OF…GOING TO PIECES…BUT THIS…RIDICULOUS…”
He stows the giant in Annie’s spacious waitressing barn (okay, okay, Hogarth’s dad was probably a farmer) until the big lug can repair himself. See, the giant can summon all his disparate parts to return to his body and reform him. Annie comes home and there’s a hilarious scene where Hogarth has to improvise an extremely energetic grace at dinner to distract Annie from the fact that one of the giant’s disembodied hands is running around the house like a metallic St Bernard. He only just puts out that brush fire when there’s a knock at the door.
Kent Mansley. He works for the government.
So this is Kent Mansley Who Works for The Government, our manifestation of Cold War Paranoia for this evening. He is voiced by Christopher McDonald, the Olivier of asshole characters. Mansley is a government agent investigating the Iron Giant and he quickley hones in on Hogarth after he finds the half chewed remains of his BB gun at the power station. Mansley is a great villain, not just because he manages to be both hilariously ineffectual and genuinely menacing without it feeling like either is out of character, but because he ties in so well to what the movie is actually about. Or at least, what I think it’s about (which of course is the only thing that matters).
For a movie that almost no one saw when it came out, a whole ton of virtual ink has been spilled on what this movie actually is, with interpretations ranging from anti-gun parable, to Christian-allegory to communist apologia. But for me, this movie is about fatherhood and masculine role models. Hogarth’s father is noticeably absent, and while it’s never explicitly stated where Hughes pére is the consensus seems to be that Annie is widowed rather than divorced. Couple this with the photo of an Air Force pilot Hogarth keeps by his bed and the time this takes place in, the clues would seem to point to Hogarth’s Dad being shot down over Korea. Hogarth, therefore, is lacking a male role model and the movie presents him with two, Dean and Kent. This is mirrored in the Iron Giant’s arc, where Hogarth gives him some comics to look over. The giant is initially drawn to a comic called ATOMO, about an evil monster robot who lays waste to the earth and its pathetic human inhabitants, which really speaks to the giant, y’know? Hogarth instead steers him towards Superman, explaining that he’s a good guy who helps people.
Eh, BULLSHIT. Fifties Superman was a goddamn maniac.
In the same way, Hogarth has to choose between his own personal Atomo and Superman. Look at the way Kent is introduced when Hogarth comes down the stairs to find out that his mother has rented their spare room to Mansley.
Seated at the head of the breakfast table, with his morning newspaper. Everything about Kent Mansley, from his suit and fedora, to his use of nicknames for Hogarth (“scout, champ, sport”) to his pipe (a pipe for God’s sake!) perfectly conforms to the archetype of the fifties sitcom Dad. He’s basically Ward Cleaver if he worked the X-Files. And the movie uses him to critique the whole notion of that specific type of masculinity. He’s a bully, an authoritarian, a paranoid maniac and ultimately a coward. Then you have Dean, who represents another fifties archetype, the Beatnik. Hogarth is drawn to Dean because, let’s face, the dude is cool, but he also represents a very different ideal of masculinity. Courageous, open-minded, decent, generous, always looking out for the little guy, just a good person. Both men offer two very different models for what a man should be and, for Hogarth at least, it’s not a difficult choice at all. When Hogarth finally talks the giant down from doing something terrible, it’s with wisdom that he learned from Dean, in a sense passing something he learned from his surrogate father to his surrogate son. Contrast that with an exchange between Kent and Hogarth earlier in the movie.
Kent Mansley: I wanted you to learn something.
Hogarth Hughes: (sarcastically) What can I learn from you?
And the movie’s answer is clear: Jack shit.
Considering how important these two character are to the movie it’s so fortunate that the casting was absolutely spot on. It could very easily not have been. Originally, Warner Bros wanted John Travolta as Dean (okay, he’s not a bad voice actor, I could see it) and for Kent they initially were eyeing Arnold Schwarzenegger (go home Warners, you are drunk).
So Hogarth manages to hide the giant in Dean’s scrapyard and they spend their days hanging out while avoiding Kent’s investigation. This includes a swimming trip at the lake which leads to the single greatest Dean moment in the whole film.
Don’t really know what I can add to that. That’s just perfect.
Later, the giant and Hogarth go for a walk in the woods and see a deer. The deer runs off and they hear a gunshot and find two hunters standing over the deer’s body. The hunters run off and Hogarth has to explain to the distraught giant that the deer is dead, and that he was shot by a gun, and that guns kill and ohhhhh boy…
Sorry. I’m about as anti-gun as you can get but Christ this is laid on thick here. I honestly think the scene would have worked better if it had just been wordless. It’s easily my least favourite scene in the whole movie because it’s just sledgehammer subtle. It does however lead into my favourite scene in the movie where Hogarth has to explain death to the giant. Hogarth tells the giant “It’s bad to kill. But it’s not bad to die.” which is an incredibly beautiful little line. Hogarth tells the giant that because he “thinks about things” he has a soul, and that souls don’t die. My daughter is now at the age where she’s trying to figure out the rules of this place and I’ve had some very similar conversations with her. Maybe that’s why this scene really strikes a chord with me.
Hogarth goes home and is ambushed by Kent who ties him to a chair and demands to know where the giant is. Hogarth tells him to screw off but he breaks when Kent threatens to have him taken away from Annie. Hogarth glumly tells him that the giant is at the junkyard and Kent knocks him out with chloroform.
Hogarth wakes up in bed and overhears Kent on the phone to his superiors in Washington requesting that they send everyone with a helment and a gun on the payroll down to Rockwell. He tries to escape but Kent’s nailed his bedroom window shut. Kent comes back and tells Hogarth that he’ll be watching him until morning and not to get any ideas. Hogarth manages to fall asleep despite the fact that Kent is watching him with this face.
Kent drifts off but when he wakes up Hogarth still seems to be in his bed. And then Hogarth walks past the bedroom door and Kent realises he’s been taken in by the old “three pillows and an Air Force helmet arranged to look like a nine year old boy” trick (that old saw). But before he can find out what monkeyshines Hogarth has been up to the US Army (like, all of it) shows up on the Hughes’ front door and Annie, Hogarth and Kent are driven over to Dean’s junkyard to capture the giant. Dean comes out and is all “Hey man.” and Kent demands that he show them the giant and Dean’s all “Sure thing man.” and takes them out back to where he keeps all his iron sculptures including…
Pff. My kid could do that.
See, Hogarth was able to get a message to Dean before Kent woke up and, instead of getting the giant to run, he instead hid him in plain sight as an installation piece. The general in charge of the soldiers orders Kent outside and proceeds to tear him at least four new orifices while Hogarth watches through a window, experiencing the kind of contentment and joy normally reserved for Buddha.
“It’s the little things.”
The army clears out and it looks like everything’s going to be gravy. Even Annie and Dean seem to hit it off and she says that she really likes his artwork, even though she doesn’t quite understand why he slapped all those road signs on the giant.
“I just think you shouldn’t mess with the clean lines of his Atomic Age retro design.”
But then, as Hogarth and the giant are playing in the junkyard, Hogarth pulls a toy ray gun on the giant and his programming takes over and he defensively fires an atomic blast that almost kills Hogarth. Terrified, the giant runs off and Dean and Hogarth follow him. The giant goes on the run and is seen by two kids from Rockwell, who were watching the army leave from a balcony. The balcony breaks and the kids go plummeting towards the earth but the giant catches them just before they hit the pavement. Because hitting concrete at fifty feet is lethal, but hitting iron at forty five feet is like slowly parachuting down into a giant champagne glass of kittens and marshmallows. The whole town sees this and realises that this iron giant feller is a good egg. Hogarth goes to the giant but then suddenly the army comes back and everything goes straight to hell. Kent orders the soldiers to open fire and the giant runs off with Hogarth. The giant takes to the air (because of course he can fly, he’s too awesome not too) and after dodging some jet fighters he gets shot down. The giant finds Hogarth’s prone body in the snow and thinks he’s dead. And I really have to commend the animators on this scene because the giant’s body language here is just heartbreakingly beautiful. The army arrives and starts shooting at him and IRON GIANT IS DONE WITH THIS SHIT.
The giant’s ultimate battle mode is so gorgeous that I kind of hate whoever designed it because they were just showing off, frankly. The giant goes on a rampage through Rockwell, and has wiped out most of the army’s tanks before you can say “Klaatu barada die motherfuckers!” Ken tells the General that there’s only one thing that can stop the giant, the bomb, and the general reluctantly orders a battleship off the coast to ready the nuke. But Hogarth isn’t really dead because Brad Bird is not actually going to murder a child in one of his movies (pussy) and as the giant prepares to lay waste to the naval flotilla off the coast, Hogarth runs up to him and tells him that he doesn’t have to be a weapon, and that he can be whatever he wants to be. The giant powers down.
Back in Rockwell, Dean tries to convince the General that the giant isn’t hostile (at least, y’know, as long as you don’t start nothin’) while Kent screams that they have to nuke him and nuke him now. The General orders his men to stand down but Kent grabs his walkie talkie and orders the battleship to launch the nuke.
General Rogard: That missile is targeted to the giant’s current position! WHERE’S THE GIANT, MANSLEY?
Kent Mansley: Oooh… We can duck and cover! There’s a fallout shelter not far from…
General Rogard: There’s no way to survive this thing, you idiot!
Kent Mansley: You mean we’re all going to…
General Rogard: To die, Mansley. For our country.
Kent Mansley: Screw our country! I WANT TO LIVE!
Kent hops in a jeep and tries to am-scray but the giant stops him from leaving because hey, if anyone should get their skin liquidated it should be this fuckin’ guy, am I right? With the missile now streaking towards Rockwell, the giant realises that there’s only one thing to do. He says goodbye to Hogarth and flies towards the missle as it enters orbit and prepares to re-enter the atmosphere. As he flies towards it, the giant remembers Hogarth’s advice to him; “You are who you choose to be.”
It’s a real gut punch, so good in fact that it makes me a little less well disposed towards Wreck It Ralph, which has a very similar scene but completely chickens out. With the bomb and the giant both seemingly gone, the citizens of Rockwell rejoice, all except one little boy. Time passes, and Dean and Annie are now dating and Dean has even erected a statue in memory of the giant in the town square. Dean gives Hogarth a package that came from General Rogard, which contains the only part of the giant they were able to recover, a tiny little screw. That night Hogarth wakes up find the little piece banging at the window trying to get out. He lets it out and watches as it goes rolling away into the night and whispers “See you later.”
And in Iceland, a small army of metal parts make their way north to where someone is waiting for them.
“WE ARE GROOT.”
When creating art, execution trumps originality every time. The Iron Giant is not the most original movie I’ve ever seen. Take E.T., mash it up with Short Circuit and you’ve got the Iron Giant. But the whole thing is carried out with so much skill, heart and verve that you scarcely even notice.
Manages the near impossible in creating a cute, appealing style that doesn’t seem overtly influenced by Disney (well, except for Annie). Notable for being the first movie with a CGI main character integrated into traditional animation and it’s so seamless you wouldn’t even know.
Beautifully designed and adorable to boot.
Kent manages the tricky feat of being both hilarious and genuinely threatening.
Supporting Characters: 16/20
Next Update: 29 September 2016.
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Neil Sharpson, aka the Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, blogger and comic book writer based in Dublin. The blog updates with a new review every second Thursday. Today’s review was made possible thanks to the kind donation of Adrienne Gallagher. Thanks Adrienne!