As an obvious riff on E.T., The Iron Giant owes an enormous emotional and spiritual debt to Steven Spielberg. You also don’t have to look hard for nods to steampunk, pulp novels, and Saturday morning serials. But for all his mixing and matching, writer-director Brad Bird actually works a small miracle with this film: Over the course of Giant‘s 87 minutes, he takes all these familiar elements and whips them into something refreshing, unique, and vibrant. It might be a work of imitation, but The Iron Giant somehow achieves a greatness all its own.
The story is adapted from The Iron Man, a sci-fi novel by British laureate Ted Hughes. (Hughes reportedly wrote the book to console his children after the suicide of their mother, Sylvia Plath.) We open in Maine, circa 1957. It’s an era where wonder and paranoia form an uneasy mixture: Sputnik hurtles overhead, prompting Americans to look to the night sky in terrified fascination. For nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal), it’s the perfect time to be a dreamer. He’s a typical little boy, in love with rocket ships, aliens, and movies that feature both.
All those loves become a sudden reality when a cosmic object crashes just outside his town. Hogarth takes a closer look and discovers a massive iron robot lumbering from the wreckage. This space giant quickly begins chowing on metal objects and tearing up the countryside. Hogarth soon figures out that the metal monster might look beastly, but he’s otherwise benign. Much like E.T. and Elliot, the two quickly bond into real friendship. Hogarth helps the Giant cultivate a little humanity, while the robot gives the lonely, geeky boy a dose of judgment-free companionship.
If only things could stay that simple. This is a time of great fear, and the giant’s arrival stokes all manner of questions: Is he the work of the Russians? The Chinese? Could he be the advance guard for an alien invasion? Kent Mansley (Christopher MacDonald) intends to find out. He’s a tightly-wound government agent who gets suspicious and starts snooping around Hogarth’s shenanigans. Mansley senses great danger around the giant, and plans to destroy it.
This means that Hogarth has to keep the Giant away from the feds, and his overprotective mom (Jennifer Aniston). She’s away a lot anyway, as an overworked diner waitress. For an ally, Hogarth turns to Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), a hip scrapyard owner who also sculpts metal heaps into art. Conveniently, Dean’s collection also makes handy snacks for the Giant.
All that probably sounds extremely familiar, and it is. Where Bird (who co-writes with Tim McCanlies) succeeds is in the execution. The animation is striking and cinematic. Many shots, including pans across oceans and skylines, feel completely three-dimensional and meticulously detailed. Bird and company also supply the characters with subtle movements and expressions that make them feel more human. (The Giant is a digital rendering, but you’d never know it.)
The voice cast is uniformly outstanding. Marienthal fills Hogarth with an infectious innocence that adds to the giddy joy of the entire film. That’s no small feat for a child actor, especially in a voice-only role. MacDonald makes a great sleaze-ball, as the commie-hating careerist. That goes ditto for John Mahoney, as the top-brass general whose main function is to insult him. If the role of Dean wasn’t written exactly for Harry Connick Jr., it sure feels like it. He’s just the grooviest scrapyard owner in the world, baby! (I also love that the animators took care to draw him a soul patch.) Aniston doesn’t have much to do but fret and nag, but she gives Annie Hughes a flustered sweetness that makes the part a little more endearing.
All this adds up to a wonderful whirlwind of a movie. It might get a little edgy and intense for super-young kids, especially in the action finale. But pre-teens and up will find much to enjoy with The Iron Giant. Adults will enjoy all the references, from E.T. to Buck Rogers. There’s even a whiff of The Day the Earth Stood Still in here: To destroy is a choice, and we must choose not to make it. This is one of the most underrated animated films ever made.
86 min. PG. Amazon Video.