Learning To Love The Bomb
Don't let the previews fool you into thinking The Iron Giant is a kids' movie. Oh, it's appropriate for any age group, and little ones will appreciate it. But this film has more in common with Joe Dante's Matinee than with any children's robot movie I've ever seen. It's the story of a boy growing up in the era of Sputnik, who discovers a metal man from space and teaches him to be a superhero.
It's also the story of how silly it is to blame technology for the way people use it. Impeding progress doesn't restore mankind's innocence, it just keeps us in the Dark Ages. Of course, in the early era of The Bomb, it was arguable that mankind would have been better off in the Dark Ages than on the brink of destroying the world...as this movie points out in a hilarous yet sad send-up of educational films about how nuclear holocaust can ruin everything, even picnics. But it also points out how faith in technology can save us.
The basic plot: a giant fireball slams into the sea near Rockwell, Maine. Young Hogarth, the child of a waitress and an apparently dead pilot, hears stories of the UFO and finds the injured robot trapped in electrical wires. He saves it by turning off the town's power, but the metal-eating machine's alien programming has been damaged. The proto-hippie junkyard owner helps Hogarth hide the gentle giant, but soon other people hear rumors and a government lackey is sent to investigate. The army arrives just as Hogarth discovers that weapons - even toy guns - set off the robot's defense mechanisms, causing him to start vaporizing everything in his path.
The Iron Giant is shamelessly predictable. It's supposed to be. The characters stand one line away from cartoon cliches, while the visuals look like old cartoon film serials. If you're looking for sophisticated CGI or new twists on the android theme - or for musical numbers - you've come to the wrong movie. Nostalgic it is, and PC it ain't; everything about the Cold War era is sentimentalized from the pre-feminist sexual politics to the Communist-hating national politics.
What's astonishing is how funny, endearing, and ultimately heartwarming The Iron Giant proves to be. The mother acts like a beleaguered 1950's homemaker...and it's sweet. The government agent turns out to be the villain...and it just figures. When hunters shoot a deer, the characters recycle concepts from Bambi, and it's actually wrenching. By the time the moniker-less title character decides to stop emulating a gun and dubs himself Superman, there's nothing to do but cheer like a kid.
If all this is too simplistic or sappy for you, then you probably won't appreciate this film, which would be a real shame. Brad Bird's low-key directing and witty screenplay work precisely as they're supposed to. You laugh, you groan, you don't get distracted admiring special effects because there's not a lot here you've never seen before. At the same time, the simply-drawn characters and idealized small-town America are very appealing.
I found the chocolate-eyed beatnik junkyard owner, voiced by Harry Connick Jr., quite sexy in a one-dimensional cartoonish sort of way. Jennifer Aniston performs the honeyed voice of the mom so effectively that I had no idea whom I was listening to; I thought they'd gotten someone like Florence Henderson to play the part. Eli Marienthal is cute and funny (but not too much so) as Hogarth, the main character. Christopher McDonald is fine as dorky, dangerous bureaucrat Kent Mansley.
But the film really belongs to The Iron Giant, and to Vin Diesel's voice - a cross between Darth Vader and Cookie Monster. The simply drawn character has an extraordinary range of expressions depicted just by changing the light in his eyes. The robot roars in pain like a tyrannosaurus rex and turns himself into a fighting machine like a Transformer, but deep down he's Mighty Joe Young. Think of the childlike computer in Wargames, think of the Horta on Star Trek, think of the good Cylon in that Battlestar Galactica episode where it saved Starbuck - that's the Iron Giant.
There's lovely stuff for genre fans in The Iron Giant - a sequence when Hogarth explains to the robot that he's more like Superman than the comic book Red Menace, and another scene where the robot hides among scrap metal sculptures like E.T. among the toys. There's also some silly stuff like the fact that the robot ingests (and apparently digests) metal, though that allows some rustic Godzilla-ripoff illustrations of cars with bites taken out of them. The "guns kill" message is hammered home several times, yet the dictum fits in with the plot so well it doesn't feel like preaching.
It's interesting to compare this year's summer movies for kids - the thematic technophobia of Tarzan, the cautious technological optimism of Inspector Gadget, the techno-overkill of The Phantom Menace - with this delightful, anachronistic little movie. It features the least spectacular visuals, yet it's the most celebratory of science, science fiction, and the power of popular entertainment. Maybe that's why it feels like The Iron Giant has the most heart.
Or maybe I'm just a sap for entertaining nostalgia.