In the late summer of 1999, with Disney steadily dominating the animated film market, The Iron Giant was released by Warner Bros. Pictures. With director Brad Bird at the helm, most known for his work on The Simpsons at the time, the film reminded audiences what an animated film could really focus on: an engaging story. It had no catchy songs to sing along to. No cute talking animals. No princesses or fairy tale motifs whatsoever. Instead, it had a boy growing up in 1957, who befriends a giant alien robot. The film shows the unease of the Atomic Age in America, just after the Russians had launch of Sputnik.
Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal) is a boy wanting a pet, but his single mother, Annie (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) will have none of it. One night, when Hogarth notices the antenna on the roof is gone, mysteriously bitten off rather, he follows a trail of destruction to find The Iron Giant (Vin Diesel’s voice computerized). The Giant is an innocent creature, much like E.T., and learns English from Hogarth in the same way. The problem is keeping The Giant hidden, from his mother and the rest of town. There is a hilarious scene with The Giant’s hand running around the house like a dog and Hogarth desperately trying to get him back outside. Eventually, word gets out and a government agent, Kent Mansley (voiced by Christopher McDonald) is sent to investigate. Driven by power and paranoia, all he wants to do is destroy The Giant. The impending doom from Mansley’s actions are more realistic and solemn than what most animated films dare to convey.
The film does a wonderful job of showing children the early years of Cold War America in ways that they could identify with. In Hogarth’s school, we see them watching a film describing what to do in case of a nuclear attack. The little jingle, “time to duck and cover, the bombs are coming down,” seems almost like an oxymoron now. The comic books Hogarth shows The Giant are all created out of this new idea and fear of foreign weaponry. Superman would surely not be around if it had not been for the early atomic age.
There are other great moments that illustrate the time period. Hogarth’s mother works at a classic diner, while Dean (voiced by Harry Connick Jr.) portrays a stereotypical beatnik, complete with his espresso and scrap metal sculptures. Great detail was taken to make sure all the cars depicted were from the era, including the train. Hogarth staying up late and watching a typical B-horror movie is one of my favorite scenes. I love how he rolls his eyes when leading man asks the woman if she wants to get a nightcap. And if you notice a star moving in one scene, it’s meant to be Sputnik.
What I believe makes The Iron Giant a great animated film is the fact that it has a strong story that both children and adults will find captivating. Adults will appreciate the accurate depiction of the time period more, but it will not push children away. And what kid wouldn’t love the idea of having a giant robot friend? Best of all, it has a simple parable about being who you choose to be, that adults can feel good about showing children.
“Oh, that’s Atomo, the metal menace. He’s not a hero, he’s a villain. But you’re not like him. You’re a good guy, like Superman.”