This article appeared in Issue 18 of Frontier, Australia's sci-fi media magazine
For every sci-fi classic such as "The Matrix", there are at least a dozen sci-fi duds unleashed on unsuspecting audiences every year, such as "The Thirteenth Floor", "Soldier", "Wing Commander", "Virus", and "Universal Soldier: The Return". Yes, good sci-fi is hard to come by these days, requiring true blue aficionados to wade through hours of lackluster material in order to uncover the 'really good stuff'.
Then imagine my surprise when I found one of this year's most moving and well-written sci-fi films was actually a cartoon-- an unassuming animated film called "The Iron Giant" that was released with little fanfare or publicity by Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers has not had a good track record in terms of releasing animated films that could be considered classic, and their misfires include the uninspired "The Quest for Camelot" from a few years ago, as well as their insipid animated version of "The King and I". However, it seems that the studio has finally pulled themselves out their creative rut with an inspiring piece of sci-fi storytelling that will appeal to audiences of all ages.
"The Iron Giant" is the latest incarnation of the 1968 British children's book "The Iron Man", written by Ted Hughes. In addition to being republished in North America as "The Iron Giant", this book inspired an album of the same name from Pete Townsend in 1989, which in turn laid the foundation for a musical that premiered in London's Old Vic. And then finally, three decades after the original book was published, the movie rights for "The Iron Man" went to Warner Brothers.
The story takes place in the seaside town of Rockwell, Maine. The year is 1957, and paranoia over the 'Red Menace' is at an all-time high, fueled by McCarthyism and the recent launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal, seen recently in "American Pie") is a spirited nine-year old boy who lives with his waitress mom Annie (Jennifer Aniston of "Office Space"). One night, while watching a B-movie, the television inexplicably goes on the fritz. Upon investigation, Hogarth is surprised to find that the TV antenna on the roof has been 'eaten'. He then notices a trail of trampled debris leading into the nearby woods, which he promptly follows.
Hogarth's foolish investigation soon leads him to the local power plant where he sees the cause of the mysterious damage-- the Iron Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel of "Saving Private Ryan"), a 100 ft. tall giant robot that has literally fallen from the sky. At first, Hogarth is afraid of the lumbering metallic behemoth and attempts to run away, but when the robot inadvertently trips over a number of live wires, the boy quickly finds the courage to save its 'life' by shutting off the power.
And so begins the friendship between Hogarth and the Iron Giant, who is thankful to his pint-sized savior. Hogarth teaches his new friend some rudimentary English, some human values, as well as introducing the machine to the concepts of self-determination, compassion, and sacrifice. Unfortunately, Hogarth also quickly learns that it is difficult to keep a 100 ft. tall robot hidden and fed, especially when it requires a constant supply of scrap metal to feast on. Fortunately, Hogarth is assisted by a freindly junkyard-owner-turned-beatnik named Dean (Harry Connick Jr. of "Hope Floats").
However, when word about the mysterious extraterrestrial visitor quickly spreads across the small town, the government sends Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald of "The Faculty"), a paranoid and trigger-happy agent who believes that the Iron Giant is actually part of a Russian plot to infiltrate the United States. Further complicating matters is that the Iron Giant was originally designed as a weapon, and that his destructive tendencies have luckily been kept in check by a case of 'amnesia'. But when the United States Army is called in, the Iron Giant's destructive programming is aroused.
The strength of "The Iron Giant" lies in the writing, which Brad Bird and Tim McCanlies have done a masterful job. The script is never pandering, and relies instead on both sharply written dialogue and a well-constructed narrative that will appeal to all audiences, regardless of age.
On the one hand, "The Iron Giant" is highlighted by some memorable scenes that convey both the film's simple themes and the story's emotional beats. One such scene would be Hogarth teaching the Iron Giant that 'killing is wrong' when they spy a couple of hunters fell a deer, while another would be the heart-wrenching conclusion that places the budding friendship between boy and machine to its most difficult test. The film's call for tolerance and compassion is handled in a surprisingly mature fashion, never being preachy or condescending, while avoiding the Disney paradigms of cuddly-cute sidekicks or gleeful song-and-dance numbers.
The film also features a well-developed sense of humor. When it is not poking fun at the social constructs of 1950s America (including cheesy B-movies and 'duck-and-cover' educational films on surviving a nuclear attack), the film keeps viewers entertained with a broad range of humor, from the usual scatological gags to the more sophisticated comic bits, such as a memorable scene that features Hogarth keeping the Iron Giant's runaway hand out of his mother's sight during dinner.
Though "The Iron Giant" may not feature the exquisite detail found in the animation produced by the 'House of the Mouse', it does present a powerfully told story that will enthrall and inspire. Sci-fi is not just about strange new worlds and slick machines-- it is also about capturing the imagination and touching the soul with the possibilities that exist in the human endeavor. It has been a long time since I was truly moved by an animated feature, and it goes without saying that "The Iron Giant" is perhaps one of the best films of the year.