42 Favorites: #10

As I mentioned in my last post, The Iron Giant is one of my favorite things.

The film was released a week before the 1999 San Diego Comic-Con. While I didn’t
get to see it in advance of heading out there, Scott McCloud raved about it — a huge recommendation for sure — and I thankfully caught it in the theater after returning home. Unfortunately, I was among only a relative few who did, as Warner Bros. rather infamously failed to properly market this beautiful, poignant tale for young and old.

My latest viewing came a couple of months ago, after I got ahold of the 2004 special-edition DVD with an eye towards sharing it with my sister’s kids. I’d forgotten just how poignant the film’s tale of a boy and his misunderstood giant alien robot was — even knowing how it ended, I misted up.

Written and directed by Brad Bird in adaptation of Ted Hughes’ 1968 prose novel The Iron Man, Giant has an interesting pedigree.

Hughes, the husband of American poet Sylvia Plath, was himself Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1984 until his death in 1998 during the film’s production. The Iron Man — subtitled A Children’s Story in Five Nights, and released in North America as The Iron Giant due to the extant Marvel superhero — had been turned into a rock opera for the stage by Pete Townsend in 1989.

Bird’s previous credits included writing and directing the 1987 segment of NBC’s Amazing Stories that later spawned the CBS animated series Family Dog, produced without Bird’s involvement, as well as participation in developing The Simpsons at Fox. Giant was his first theatrical directing job, both suffering and benefiting from lack of attention at Warner Bros.’ feature-animation division; its budget was too small (which, especially if you compare this to Disney releases from the same era, is at times evident on-screen) but the creative crew was largely left alone by the suits. Bird later went on to direct The Incredibles and then Ratatouille for Pixar, making his live-action feature debut with last year’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

Boiling down something that one loves to high concept or shorthand can be a hollow, futile gesture. To attempt to convey a sense of The Iron Giant’s plot and feel, I’ll describe it as a grounded, retro cartoon mashup of 1950s sci-fi and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. — if E.T. was a massive metal man who sounds like Cookie Monster — set against a rural New England backdrop that includes gorgeous autumn foliage recalling for me Todd Haynes’ lush Far from Heaven.

The giant himself is voiced by Vin Diesel, then largely unknown, while the boy who discovers and befriends him in small-town Maine, Hogarth Hughes, is voiced by Eli Marienthal. Jennifer Aniston voices Hogarth’s mother, character actor Christopher MacDonald is the single-minded federal agent on the giant’s case, and Harry Connick Jr. voices the loner beatnik artist who befriends Hogarth, becoming privy to the secret of the giant’s existence early on and letting the big guy crash at the junkyard he runs. Those of you who’ve had a big, galumphing dog — or, as in my own admittedly much rarer case, a cat who’s oddly like a big, galumphing dog — may well recognize their beloved pet in the giant, although the giant has hidden depths both emotional and physical.

Ultimately I decided to wait at least one more year before showing The Iron Giant to the kids after rewatching it this past summer, not wanting the youngest of them to be too scared at certain points, too sad at others, nor too bored when things quiet down between the scenes of frantic excitement. To viewers, oh, 8 years old and up, from a child who’s mature enough to let a story unfold to anyone who’s ever been a child, I recommend The Iron Giant wholeheartedly.

The Iron Giant is, by the way, one of three films covered on the blog so far that’s on my personal list of Top 10 Films of All Time as submitted to Forces of Geek in August.

Poster and stills from The Iron Giant © 1999, DVD art © 2004, Warner Bros. Entertainment.

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