Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)

Here's what I've covered so far:

Intro: My Year at "Film School"
The (sorta)Forgettable Films
The Films That Just Don't Hold Up
When Bad Movies Happen to Good Directors

The Forgotten Gems of 1999:
The War Zone (Tim Roth)
Sunshine (István Szabó)
Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)
Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot)
Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Bowfinger (Frank Oz)
Cookie's Fortune (Robert Altman)
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton)

It seems odd to think that it was only 10 years ago that Disney’s stranglehold on the animation market was loosening; after all, today we have Pixar (Wall-E, Up), Dreamworks (Shrek), and Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age) giving Disney a run for its money – and in some ways outdrawing Disney movies (which seem to have focused more on the High School Musical crowd than the animation market). In 1999, however, it was absurd to really think that any other animated movie not named Toy Story was going to advance the genre or rival something backed by Disney (even Toy Story was Disney produced). Enter Brad Bird. The Iron Giant is a film often omitted when talking about the evolution of animation over the past ten years, but Bird’s film is a perfect example of the type of animated film that Pixar has made a lot of money off of; the type of animated film that is concurrently moving (something for the adults) and funny without being too cutesy (something for the kids) and the result is one the best animated films of the last ten years.

One of the best parts of this whole exercise of re-watching these films from 1999 has been re-discovering these forgotten gems. I forgot about a lot of what made The Iron Giant such a wonderful and poignant experience – something that you usually don’t associate with animated films (well not then at least…now we’ve had Wall-E and Up back-to-back years, so I think this particular formula of animated films that tackle heavier themes are catching on). The film shows the freedom filmmakers are afforded when dealing with animation (just think of how much this film would have cost if it were live action) and also allows for a director to stretch audience’s expectations when it comes to a genre.

The film takes place in the 1950’s at the height of the “race to space” as American’s spent most of their time looking up at the sky at Sputnik. From the sky comes the iron giant, landing in a small Maine town and eating anything that is metal along the way. Hogarth is nine-year-old who is living with his single mom (voiced by Jennifer Anniston) who happened upon the giant one day. The giant is eating Hogarth’s TV antenna and he follows the giant on his path of destruction where he saves the giant from electrocution (the giant is about to eat a bunch of live wires) and immediately the giant takes a liking to Hogarth, forming a friendship that reminds the viewer of another movie about a visitor from outer space: E.T.

The setting for the film is important because as with anything from the late 50’s paranoia engulfs the town as word about the visitor from outer space spreads. They see the giant as an enemy of the United States and so of course the government is soon setting up camp in the small town with G-man Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) afraid of the giant and what it could mean – therefore he wants to destroy it. The only person who shows Hogarth any respect is a beatnik metal-artist (Harry Connick Jr.) who lets Hogarth hangout with his new metal friend at his scrap yard (supplying the giant with plenty to eat – also creating some beautifully animated scenes).

As I mentioned earlier the film follows the mold of the E.T. storyline where a lonely kid happens upon an alien who befriends him and then spends a lot of the film trying to hide his new friend from his mom. There’s a lot of charm in this film, especially the early moments of Hogarth’s friendship where he teaches the big iron giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) how to talk and be humane (there’s a sweet scene where they come across a recently slain deer). There’s a lot of humor, too, and in one scene particular where one of the giant’s fingers is roaming around Hogarth’s house. Hogarth has just down for dinner with his mom and she asks him to bless the food. The scene plays out with the giant finger creating all sorts of problems for Hogarth as he is simultaneously praying for the dinner and trying to tell the finger what not to do (it’s a hilariously executed scene); however, those moments of elation are soon interrupted by the buried theme of paranoia and the inevitable loss Hogarth’s friend.

Bird, a “Simpson’s” veteran, has a lot of fun with the ridiculous nature of the 1950’s, and in typical “Simpson’s” fashion takes some funny jabs at the “duck and cover” videos that students watched in school (this also reminded me of the underrated Joe Dante comedy Matinee). The art here is drastically different than anything Bird did on “The Simpson’s”, but the spirit is the same. He seems free here, able to tell the story he wants to tell (adapted from poet laureate Ted Hughes’ children story) without feeling the need to throw in talking animals or musical numbers – which may not seem like a big deal today, but in 1999 was rare for a non-Japanese produced animated film to do.

The technique used in The Iron Giant is what is called “straight line”, which is more indebted to the anime-style in Japan than anything American audiences are used to seeing; and if you’ve seen any of the great master Hayao Miyazaki’s films (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke) you get a sense at what Bird is going for here. Bird and his animators are able to display an astonishingly wide range of emotions on the giants face. Much like with what fellow “Simpson’s” vet Jim Reardon with last years Wall-E, Bird does with his iron giant: a lifeless form is given the ability to showcase an infinite assortment of emotions. Animation style aside, it’s really what Bird does with the story that makes The Iron Giant so memorable. He set the stage for all of the films that would follow, creating a blueprint so that filmmakers would not have to be worried about being indebted to the Disney style of animated film. Kids are more attracted to good storytelling than cute things on the screen signing songs – and I think this shift is obvious now with Bird’s own films that would follow (The Incredibles, Ratatoullie) and other Pixar films like the recent Wall-E or Up which focus a lot of their attention on the dramatic aspect of filmmaking as opposed to what appeases the kiddies.

The Iron Giant just misses the cut of being in my top ten for 1999, but it sits somewhere in the 15-11 range. It’s a tremendous example of Brad Bird’s genius (which would only be further cemented with his next two films) and that all animation doesn’t have to adhere to a formula, and, when used properly, animation can be one of the most freeing and un-inhibiting ways to go about making a film. Just watch the way the final 20 minutes of this film unfolds: the action is so tense, so enthralling that you forget you’re watching an animated film, and then when you remember that you are watching an animated film you are in awe at how beautiful, effortless, and flawless the animation in the final action sequence is (and feels). It doesn’t seem revolutionary anymore to say “I never thought an animated film could evoke such emotion and make me actually feel something” (and, oh man, the ending of this movie still gets to me) because of the success of the aforementioned Pixar movies had in transcending animation, but in 1999, it was a rare thing to say indeed, and The Iron Giant definitely makes you utter those words.

Extra Stills:


  1. I love this film dearly. I still have fond memories of seeing it on the big screen. Good call on the comparison to MATINEE. It shares that film's nostalgic tone.

    Warner Bros. really dropped the ball on this film and it could have been a HUGE hit if they had promoted it properly. Look what happened to Brad Bird after he jumped ship to make films with Pixar! It's funny, over the years, THE IRON GIANT has become something of a cult film. It is definitely one of the best animated films to come out in the last 15 years.

  2. J.D.:

    You're right-on about the way this film was mishandled by Warner Bros. There's no reason why I should be talking about this film in regards to it being 'forgotten'. It should have been a huge hit, instead it slowly built an audience (comprised mostly of adults) that starting drawing attention to the film. And you're right again about the fact that once Bird jumped ship he showed Warner Bros. the opportunity they missed. Come to think of it, I can't really think of any Warner Bros. animated films post The Iron Giant...I'm guessing they thought it wasn't worth competing with Disney and Pixar.

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you hold the film in such high regard. It's certainly one of my favorite animated films.

  3. WB really dropped the ball on this and even the (much) lesser Cats Don't Dance; The Iron Giant is one of the most memorable animated films of all time, in my opinion.

  4. Thanks Tommy. I couldn't agree more with you. Glad to see that there are still fans of this somewhat forgotten film.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  5. For some reason 1999 was a great year for movies, especially for the non typical blockbuster films, as it saw directors such as David Fincher (Fight Club) and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) release movies which finally gave audiences, movies worth talking about. I mean 1999 also saw the release of cult favourite "The Boondock Saints", which makes me wonder what could have been in the water, that year to suddenly give us this burst of creativity, which so far is yet to be rivaled since.

    Iron Giant is definatly an overlooked classic, much like "All Dogs Go To Heaven", though that might just be my personal opinion on the latter.

    Great Blog!

  6. Elwood:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words in regards to the blog! You're so right about 1999...which is why I'm doing this whole exercise because I have yet to experience a year that had the quality of films 1999 had. I hope you take a look at the links I provided above because even the films I didn't really like (especially Eyes Wide Shut, American Beauty, Fight Club) are still better than a lot of the movies that are being released now. It's such an amazing year for movies that even the bad ones are memorable.

    I hope you stick around and keep reading because in about three weeks I'll be getting to my top 10 and that will be the ultimate proof for how amazing (and I feel unrivaled...at least that I've been alive to experience the theatrical releases of these films) 1999 was for film.

    Thanks again for checking out the blog.

  7. The best cartoon there is, definitely famous true movie magic. It is so damn good because it is so damn real and honest.