The ludicrous, radiation-tinged popular sci-fi/horror movies of the 1950s are all but dead. They’ve been dead quite a while, 20 years in fact, and they died with a movie no one would have suspected. Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant came out in 1999 and proved that there was no real appetite for the radioactive monster movie anymore. Of course creature-features and killer robot movies would evolve into the likes of The Shape of Water and The Terminator as time passed but movies about plucky kids, lantern-jawed heroes and shrieking heroines died with The Iron Giant. But what a death it was.
The Iron Giant is a beautiful, lyrical animated film that takes all the tropes and stereotypes of movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space! and turned them on their head. The plucky kid was a grieving son who finds that the greatest weapon you can wield is compassion and understanding. The heroine does a fair bit of shrieking but she’s also brave and distrustful of the government that sent her husband off to die. It stands to reason then that the villain looks like he has the “lantern-jaw” of a hero but is a paranoid freakazoid with a weak chin and the supportive father figure is a beatnik hippie who lives in a scrapyard. And the monster is, of course, the real hero.
Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) is a 9-year-old boy living in Rockwell, Maine in 1957 when an enormous robot crash lands off the coast. Soon found and hidden by Hogarth this Iron Giant (Vin Diesel) becomes a quick friend to the boy and an important help in the grieving process for his dead father. Hogath’s mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston) eventually aids Hogarth in keeping the fifty foot, metal eating Giant a secret from paranoid agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald). This is by hiding it in a scrapyard owned by Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.), a local beatnik artist.
The Iron Giant was born to fly despite the weight of its title character. But it never did and it wasn’t because of a poor audience reaction. The Iron Giant was a box office bomb not even making half its budget back. This was mostly thanks to Warner Bros’ dreadful (read: non-existent) marketing strategy. Almost everyone – including Burger King and several toy companies – were behind the film. Warner Bros were not. After audience test screenings revealed an overwhelmingly positive reaction, Warner Bros were left with nothing but a single test poster to promote the film. No tie-in meals, games, lunchboxes or toys to ship out just an original concept poster.
In fairness, this is a two-fold blessing in disguise. On the one hand The Iron Giant’s popularity spread by word-of-mouth: something that rarely happens for theatrical releases anymore. Its release on home video ensured that people like me and articles like this would still be talking about it twenty years later. On the other hand animation nerds and fans of the film get to rage against the foolishness, gall and arrogance of Warner Bros to dump such a wondrously lyrical and fluid film like The Iron Giant in favour of the entertaining Will Smith yarn Wild Wild West that has frankly aged like bad cheese.
The age of hand-drawn animation has, I fear, passed us by. The fantastic has become photo-realistic and the magical has become practical. But Brad Bird – whose other features include The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – managed to combine both. For all its rubbery character designs, metallic effects and romantic woodland scenery The Iron Giant has a distinct sense of being set somewhere just outside our own reality. That is it feels real but everyone save that gibbering, anally retentive Agent Mansley is a good person at heart.
The casting of Christopher McDonald, who also played Shooter McGavin in Happy Gilmore, as Agent Mansley was a stroke of genius. But so too is every other piece of casting. Marienthal, who was 13 when he was cast, gives Hogarth a real sense of loneliness and hope. Aniston, near the peak of her Friends fame, sells Annie as a single mother more than willing to punch out a federal agent when her only son is threatened. Harry Connick Jr’s mix of deadpan delivery and cosmic horror works like a charm. And then there’s Vin…
Regardless of what you think of him Vin Diesel has an eclectic filmography from Pitch Black to The Fast and the Furious to the MCU but his voice roles are some of his best. Vin Diesel’s voice is so, so deep. Once I watched one of his Instagram videos on my phone without realising it was on full volume. The vibrations shook the bones in my arm. There was only one person that could play the Iron Giant and it was Vin Diesel. He has maybe five lines in the film but each one is delivered with the emotion, cadence and depth that, two decades later, would make Groot a household name.
The legacy of The Iron Giant is cast iron (sorry). Although it wasn’t financially successful in its time, it did take home 9 Annie Awards out of 15 nominations and its home video release ensured that 90’s kids would remember it as a formative experience. I certainly did. Alongside that it made Brad Bird an in-demand and selective auteur. Bird reinvigorated superhero cinema with The Incredibles, made a rat sympathetic in Ratatouille and up until 2018 he’d made the best Mission Impossible film. All of these films show Bird’s knowledge of action and scale but it was The Iron Giant that really put these skills on display.
There’s no point in arguing about what might have been or dreaming about a successful Iron Giant franchise because that never happened and it probably never will. The Iron Giant was probably the most formative film for me when I was growing up. Its animation, acting and sense of hope really illuminated just how important movies were and still are.
Most of all though The Iron Giant’s most important message, delivered in the low, easy drawl Vin Diesel is known for, was so simple and powerful. It’s a brief moment but it’s one I think about every day. Just before the Giant sacrifices himself to save Rockwell he leans down to Hogarth and whispers “Beeeeee gooooooddd…” Most other films wouldn’t have been able to make this work but The Iron Giant delivered this moment with such sincerity and clarity of purpose that it felt like Giant was speaking directly to me and only me. It’s something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.