"The Iron Giant"

The metal-machine sci-fi cartoon delivers robot action, retro nostalgia and stony metaphysics.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

A good rule when making an animated feature is that it should be able to appeal to three distinct types of audiences: kids, their parents and college students who like to get really baked before going to the movies. "The Iron Giant" is just such a film. It's got lots of neat robot action for children, a slick retro nostalgia for adults, and for the stoners, the kind of trippy metaphysical observations you'd expect from a story conceived by a guy who used to be married to Sylvia Plath and produced by the man who gave the world "Tommy."

"The Iron Giant" is adapted from "The Iron Man," a tale British poet Ted Hughes originally created for his children to explain the death of their mother. The book's themes of life, afterlife and the nature of the soul are still here in abundance, along with some of the grandeur the film's executive producer, Pete Townshend, originally brought to his 1986 album of the same name. But the story now is also a rumination on Sputnik-era America, freeing the filmmakers to tackle other complicated subjects such as isolation, suspicion, the technology of destruction and the nature of free will. If all this seems a little too intense for small fry, it should also be mentioned that "The Iron Giant" always manages to remain very much a movie about a little boy and one wildly oversize toy.

At the height of Cold War paranoia, a small New England town is jolted by unexplained apparitions and evidence of bite marks ripping through its cars and grain silos. Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), a runty, lonely misfit whose single mom (Jennifer Anniston) works long hours at the local diner, sights the mysterious creature -- a 50-foot metal man with a taste for tin -- and rescues him from near electrocution. The two become fast friends. Hogarth, however, knows only too well that Eisenhower-era Americans don't take too kindly to people who are a little different, especially people who are different in a leviathan-from-outer-space kind of way. And he's having a hard enough time trying to conceal the whereabouts of his oversize pal from the townsfolk when a nosy, square-jawed federal agent (Christopher McDonald) shows up and starts poking around.

While the quality of "The Iron Giant's" computer animation is a bit detached -- more "Speed Racer" than vintage Disney -- it's still visually imaginative, with its bright, autumn-in-Maine hues and its clever juxtapositions of the big gray guy and the lush forest. But better than the way the movie looks is how it feels, the way it blends its heavy metal exterior with a big soft heart to create a dark, high-tech version of "E.T." The giant clomps and stamps with unintentional menace, and later reveals his impressive personal arsenal of weaponry (his eyes shoot lasers, for starters), but he's also just a goofy big lug. Hogarth wouldn't be so keen on hanging out with him if he didn't have an innocent enthusiasm for chowing down at the scrap yard like it was a Sizzler, or creating tsunamis in the local lake with his giddy cannonballs. And the giant wouldn't be such a hit with the town's beatnik artist, Dean (voiced with mellow coolness by Harry Connick Jr.), if he didn't have such a sensitive knack for bending old wrecks into avant-garde sculpture.

But what makes the giant truly exceptional, ` la the velveteen rabbit, is that his friendship with Hogarth teaches the machine that he's a living creature with a soul. The movie's big question, whether the giant will turn into a hero or just a very elaborate gun, drives it to the edge of political correctness, but the message -- that we are who we choose to be -- is still a positive one for kids to hear and adults to affirm.

"Iron Giant" isn't all self-actualization allegory, though. It's full of "Simpsons"-style dry humor (director Brad Bird has worked both on that series and "King of the Hill") about cheesy 1950s sci-fi movies and school kids who watch cheerful educational films with names like "Atomic Holocaust." There's also a distinctly modern, "X Files" generation sensibility clearly aimed at the film's older viewers: the creature crash lands in "Rockwell"; resourceful sleuths brandish omnipresent flashlights. And this being the Summer of Poop, there are even a fair number of scatological gags. For all the seriousness of its message, it never loses sight of its buoyant zest for life.

The film never answers where exactly the giant came from or how he wound up stamping around the earth (though the Christian symbolism, late in the story, is hard to miss), and children will probably either accept the story's question marks or be deeply frustrated by them. But "Iron Giant's" open-endedness is a deliberate and integral part of the myth -- as one character observes, "Things happen that can't be rationalized." The point is that it doesn't matter where we come from or how strange we may seem, because there is beauty and purpose to all living things.

It's hard to know what to make of a season in which the most daring, thought-provoking films turn out to be low-budget mockumentaries or cartoons, but as the dog days drag on, we'll take what we can get. Surprising as it sounds, as far as examinations of trust, loyalty and identity go, the big metal dude's story winds up far more satisfying than the plodding Kubrick opus any day of the week. It's not the sort of thing one could ever have predicted back in June, but it somehow ties nicely back to "The Iron Giant's" overriding concept -- that really wonderful things have a tendency to turn up in the most unlikely places.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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