Friday, January 15, 2010

The Iron Giant

It's only appropriate that one follows up a fairly awful anime with a film that validates animation as a form. Since I love animation, I feel the need to confirm that animation is totally amazing. Luckily, by pure coincidence, I had a film by someone who is quite possibly the best and most consistent director working in animation today, who currently works for the studio which is quite possibly the best and most consistent animation studio around. However, this is the film he made before joining that studio, which is also amazing. I am speaking, of course, of the totally fantastic Brad Bird, and the Iron Giant.

In the very beautifully animated world of Rockwell, Maine lived a young kid with the rather strange name of Hogarth. He likes pets, like squirrels, which really annoys his mother Annie, who is both a single mother and a busy waitress. One day, he discovers a big Iron Giant, who is like a big massive puppy dog who can't remember anything. They become fast friends, as often happens in this kind of movie, but their friendship is challenged by Kent, who works for the government, has a huge ego and is highly paranoid about the "red menace," since this takes place in the 50s. Also involved is friendly artist shopkeeper beatnik cool dude Dean, who runs a scrapyard, which is convenient, because the aforementioned Iron Giant has a taste for metal.

For some reason, millions of films are made about kids and their pets. Maybe this is because a pet is one of those things that is always loyal, reliable and friendly. For a particularly awkward kid - as someone named Hogarth would inevitably be - a pet is one of the rare friends one might have. Kids can immediately identify with teaching and becoming close to a loyal pet. Some kids even have to deal with their loyal pet putting their life on the line to save them - a case recently happened in B.C. of a Golden Retriever which kept a cougar off of her owner, for example. It's something that remains somewhat universal, even if the pet, like in this case, is a super cool robot.

So what sets apart a really good pet story from a less good one? Well, being about a super cool robot helps, of course. Simply by being a robot, it opens up a wide range of possibilities of what it can do. Powers can be given, wonder can be created, and one can do a really detailed homage to the style of the 50s and cold war paranoia. The Iron Giant does all of that.

First the giant himself. Here is something that could not be created without animation, a blend between cel-shaded CGI and hand drawn that is innovative, good looking, and exactly the same as what Futurama uses. I'm not sure who did it first, but it's such a good look that I'm sad I don't see it more, and it's a key component to making the film as compelling as it is. The Iron Giant is, in spite of being a big robot, is filled with emotion and character, and quickly becomes endearing to the audience. You care about the Giant, which is absolutely key to making the film work.

The rest of the characters are similarly fully realized. The humans are completely, fully drawn humans, complete with good and bad, and aspects of their personality that people can identify in themselves. Annie isn't perfect, but she's a good mom. Hogarth is foolish, but he's basically a good kid. Even the villain, with his ego and desire for career advancement, does have the safety of his country at heart. His main flaw is that he's convinced that he's right, even when he couldn't possibly be more wrong.

In short, it works because it spends a lot of the time just making you care. The conflicts, the characters, the world, they all become important before the end of the film. It's a world you want to protect, and you want to turn out well. When you see a movie like this, that should be the priority, and when the drama unfolds you suddenly have an investment in everything involved.

Another plus is that the sheer level of detail in the picture, which explains why Bird fits in so well at Pixar. From the uniquely awful acting in a B-movie within a movie, to the light mockery of old atomic bomb safety videos, there are layers and layers of homage in the background, things that grow and one notices as they watch the film. A young kid can enjoy the story, and as one ages and learns they can find more little details to amuse and entertain. It's wonderfully clever.

So where does this fit in the overall realm of pet pictures? It should be near the top, up with ET and well above Ol' Yeller. It should be one of those films that families have to buy repeatedly as the DVD wears out from constant use. Warner Brothers bungled the release so it wasn't nearly as popular as it should have been, but I hope people discover it more and more as the years go buy. I'm going to say, without regret or a hint of hesitation, that this is a classic, and something that people will be able to enjoy for decades to come.


  1. I keep hearing this film is amazing, and I really should check it out. I will say that I noticed recently that Best Buys around here have it in the bargain bin for like $5 or $6, so at least a standard DVD release isn't very hard to obtain.