"The Iron Giant"

Even against the warmer, rounder tones of traditional animation, Brad Bird's computer-
generated metal man practically breathes.

Published October 17, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Iron Giant"
Directed by Brad Bird
Featuring the voices of Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel
Warner Home Video; widescreen (2.35:1) and full-screen (1.33:1)
Extras: Making-of featurette, music video, trailers

In the vintage clothing world, youthful hipsters have long stopped seeking out drapey '50s gabardine shirts, instead favoring '70s patterned monstrosities with collars to equal an eagle's wingspan. That's just one reason that Brad Bird's deft and charming animated and computer-generated feature, "The Iron Giant," is an idea whose time has come -- if it's nostalgic for the '50s, that nostalgia is refreshingly twice removed.

In this tale set in Maine in the '50s amid Cold War paranoia (based on a story by Ted Hughes), Bird and his team blend impressive late 20th century technology with the wonder of old-fashioned, early 20th century animation. The result is a modern-feeling little fable that also has a sense of history, although Bird's Atomic Age details -- like the hyperkinetically animated duck-and-cover spots that the movie's youthful hero sees at his school -- keep it from being cloyingly sentimental.

In "The Iron Giant" a boy named Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) discovers a massive metal man (Vin Diesel) who has landed mysteriously in his small town. After Hogarth saves the giant from electrocuting himself by chomping on power lines, the two become fast friends. The giant (who, in spite of being huge and made of metal, has an inherently gentle soul) and a local beatnik junk artist (Harry Connick) become a kind of extended family for Hogarth, whose mother (Jennifer Aniston) loves him dearly but has to work overtime at the local diner night after night to support herself and her son. Hogarth and his friends face one very big enemy: a government flunky (Christopher McDonald) who doesn't like the idea of a strange iron being tromping the soil of the good ol' U.S. of A. and who's intent on bringing down the giant -- using nuclear weapons if he has to. The movie's overt maxim, "It's OK to be different," also harbors a subtler historical message: "In the '50s, it was even harder to be different." "The Iron Giant" is delightful because it's both gentle and brainy; it doesn't deny that certain things about life in the '50s may have been idyllic, but it's not "Happy Days," either.

The half-hour featurette on the making of "The Iron Giant," narrated by Diesel, is probably more engaging for kids than it is for adults. Even so, as you listen to Bird and the animators, computer specialists and producers who helped put the picture together, it's clear this was a labor of both love and careful thought. The whole idea of having just one computer-generated character (the giant) among traditionally animated ones is perfectly suited to the story, and Bird makes it work beautifully. Two-dimensional animation ends up imparting a rounder, warmer feel than computer-generated movement does -- and yet the soft gray giant, who speaks in a gravelly monotone and looks out through eyes the size of airport windows, wins us over very quickly. As producer Alison Abbate explains, the central challenge was "about using technology to make a character that you had to love." This iron giant isn't a hero you want to cuddle; instead, his image crawls in deep, and stays there.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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