Warner Bros. // 1999 // 86 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // November 16th, 2004
You are what you choose to be.
Good god, I'm about to do a glowing review of a movie that gives Jennifer Aniston top billing.
As the newly launched Sputnik satellite orbits earth, a strange meteorite approaches the planet. During a vicious nautical storm, the object plummets to sea. A craft nearly wrecks against the meteorite, which oddly has risen to a towering bipedal stance, unusual behavior in a meteorite. The meteorite furthers its strangeness by peering down at the vessel. The next day, the boat's pilot, spastically recounting the tale, is dismissed by his tablemates at the diner, but defended by a youngish fellow at another table, a fellow who affects an urbane outlook in this rural community. Serving coffee at the diner is Annie Hughes (Aniston, Office Space), a young widow whose son Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) presently appears with his latest in a long string of found pets, a wild squirrel. The squirrel escapes, causing some havoc when it gets rather intimate with the youngish dude type guy, who identifies himself as Dean (Harry Connick Jr., Little Man Tate). A brief envisioning of a Ray Stevens song ensues and, well, that boy doesn't get to keep his squirrel. Later that same night, though, Hogarth hears some strange noises in the woods and goes off to investigate, setting off a chain of events that will lead him to something a lot more exciting than a squirrel. Hogarth encounters a gigantic android robot, which herds him toward a power station; like any good 1950s monster, the metal man is hungry. In its attempts to consume the power station, however, the giant becomes entangled in live lines, which confuse it beyond its ability to escape them. Hogarth, first ready to run for safety, instead turns back and acts on the behalf of the strange creature, cutting the power and allowing the giant to free itself.
Hogarth returns home, but goes back the next night looking for the Giant. He's no dope -- he's figured out that the Giant craves metal in its diet, and brings some along, hoping to catch a photograph of the Giant. Sure enough, he finds the large robot, and the two strike up something of a relationship, with the Giant acting as another of Hogarth's found pets. But someone else is interested in the tales of this strange, car-eating apparition: a government man named Kent Mansley (Chris MacDonald, Thelma and Louise) has come to town in search of what must, after all, represent a clear and present danger to the American people...whatever the heck it is. As the friendship between boy and robot matures, Mansley draws nearer and nearer to discovery of the fugitive machine, with inevitable conflict to follow. And in fact, Mansley is right; the giant is a colossal weapon of some sort, but it was damaged and has received its new education from a small boy, and it now understands death. What will happen when the United States Army, at the hands of a cold war paranoiac, comes to claim a vast, sentient alien weapon that is now unwilling to fight?
The Iron Giant is a towering achievement. HAW! I'm very sorry for that joke.
The Iron Giant represents Pete Townshend's second adaptation of the Ted Hughes novella The Iron Man, with the first being a concept album from quite a while back. This time the vision, however, is purely the product of Bird and his team. Presented under the aegis of Warner Brothers Feature Animation, the movie is a miraculous merge of modern and traditional animation techniques to produce one of the most complex and rewarding animated features of all time, anywhere. A very simple stylistic move allows the entirely 3D animated Giant to merge seamlessly with the 2D traditional animation: the 2D figures are rendered with border lines that mirror the color of their bodies -- a relatively new development in cel animation allowing a more painterly look -- while the Giant is rendered entirely with the old-fashioned heavy black lines. So simple! A slight kick forward to the 2D, a slight kick backward to the 3D. And it works beautifully. This trick hardly does the job by itself, of course -- the painstaking efforts of the animators to present a seamless vision and dynamic perspective are the true heroes here. When the Giant leans back and crashes into a seated position, it's easy to believe that the figure has real weight and mass. And when Hogarth stumbles into a tree to receive a bloody nose, we are again left with a feeling of real object, a very difficult thing for an animator to achieve when we know deep down that an animated character can fall off a huge cliff to continue his battle against the Road Runner, or split into pieces and reassemble (or, to take a different cultural bent on the question, split into pieces by some futuristic samurai sword and fall down in some heavily stylized display of gore).
In addition to this technical merit there is not only a rewarding story, but a plethora of individual scenes that evoke the era wonderfully (despite the occasional anachronism -- "Coffee-zilla" joke in 1957?); most notable is probably the classroom scene, which skewers the educational films of the era, those disgusting remnants of a paranoid government that tried to sell its people the idea that nuclear war was safe. The entire film could be considered an overall attack on that premise -- which is dated, of course, only in the specifics of its weaponry. These days people take a "been there, done that, doesn't scare me" attitude toward nuclear weaponry; an attitude that's as outright stupid and head-in-the-sand as the old-fashioned "duck and cover." Here's hoping that all us jaded tough guys and gals never have to face the face that our laptops and PDAs and self-estimated superiority aren't actually going to help much if a nuke goes off nearby or an Iron Giant gets driven over the edge. Anyway, back to the movie.
The voice performances are strong, with Connick, Mahoney (as the general in charge of the operation), and particularly Chris MacDonald turning in another in a long series of great jerks as Kent Mansley. Hiring Connick was a brilliant move -- the world of "talky" singers is as fertile a field for voice talent as the traditional Disney mine of stand-up comedy (has anyone ever gotten Tom Waits for a cartoon?). Connick seems ready to strike just the right note, with his reasonably authentic (though collaged) beatnik struggling to outcool the anachronistically modern-verbed Hogarth. MacDonald goes absolutely hogwild with Mansley, becoming inseparable from the animation. Aniston holds her own rather nicely, camouflaging well within the character for the most part, and Eli Marienthal provides a solid, authentic center for the movie. Locked in the belly of the giant is now-megastar muscleboy Vin Diesel, an actor who's a little hard to figure. Despite being a big slab, the guy does seem to have interests and tastes and a desire to promote them. Unfortunately he also appears in movies like xXx, which is well and enough justification to get a guy aesthetically blackballed for life. So whatever. I guess people will keep paying him. In this case, the pay is earned with a solid delivery of the Giant's lines. This is the one role in the movie, however, in which the voice actor is really kind of irrelevant. While Diesel does give the Giant some personality and some after-the-fact celebrity cachet (strengthened a bit symbolically by his career's action-hero nature: a weapon at the heart of the Giant), it's hard to make the claim that his performance is definitive -- with the lines the Giant has and the childlike emotional level involved, I'd wager that virtually any actor worth half a damn could have pulled off the role. Therefore we can determine conclusively that Vin Diesel is worth half a damn, based on this evidence. Guy ever comes up with the other half of the damn, he'll have something. Okay, I'm enjoying poking at Diesel a little bit here, but don't take it too heavy; this movie is filled with professional voice performances, and they're all the more impressive (on the actors' part) for having been recorded separately. The animation rhythmically complements the voice recordings at every turn, making these into vivid and memorable characters.
The classic animators' obsession with cheap gags, almost unavoidable in a feature-length cartoon, is here mostly confined to a series of laxative jokes -- which, despite their tastelessness, are a long tradition in kid culture, perhaps under-represented on film. From this perspective, the jokes make perfect sense, but I can't say I didn't tire of them fairly quickly.
The Iron Giant is presented in a stunning new anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer; the old disc was nothing to sneeze at, either, but this one is just clean as a whistle. Motion compression is smooth and non-interfering, with the exception of a few of those fast pans that MPEG2 just can't deal with effectively. Sound is delivered in terrific English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks; I didn't detect any differences in the English track from the previous disc. The many booming sound effects and Michael Kamen's outstanding score are well-presented, with the voices in the center channel as is considered a rule these days (dumb rule, but this isn't the place to debate it).
Great cover, a new painting presumably by Bird, which is highly reminiscent of older painted comic book covers such as those used regularly by in the '60s and '70s by Dell or Gold Key. Even the logo has been given this treatment! It's a great cover for anyone who's already familiar with the movie and for those who can recognize its influences. On the other hand, it might not attract the eye of those who are not familiar with either, so it's clear from the get go that this is a special edition aimed at fans, and that's good. The disc's own printed image continues this; it's a great little image of the Giant falling to earth from the opening scene, with no text whatsoever. Very nice! The menus continue the theme with images taken from the classroom scene in which an educational film is shown, with The Iron Giant itself taking the place of the edutainment. My only quibble is the sound; it would have been better to just use music rather than including verbal cues.
And how about extras? Duck and cover! This disc is loaded for bear. We start things off strong, with a full-length commentary from director Brad Bird, story head Jeff Lynch, Tony Fucile (head of animation), and Steven Markowski, who created the animation for the Giant itself. The commentary is mostly concerned with practical matters, but there's a nugget here and there of revelation about the final movie -- keep watching the skies! An interesting matter of perspective came up for me at the commentary's very beginning, where Bird states that the shot of Sputnik in orbit is meant to give a feeling of paranoia. Guess I'm just a modern global boy; I saw it as a symbol of the hopeful space age, at least until dialogue made Bird's perspective on the matter a little more clear. Next up there's a gallery of additional scenes with introductions from Bird and Fucile; these scenes are from the "story reel," an edited animatic rough draft of the movie in black and white. The animation in these scenes is rudimentary compared to the feature, but probably more elaborate than a lot of stuff I watched on Saturday mornings as a child. The scenes themselves are quite different from the final product; a lengthy conversation about comics between Hogarth and Annie (reassigned to the Giant), the elaborate original opening scene featuring the crew of an aircraft carrier, more of the classroom, and several others, including a fascinating scene of the Giant's dreams, broadcast from the robot's brain onto Dean's television. Overall these scenes present an invaluable look at the early stages of modern feature animation. There's also a baker's dozen "mindocumentaries" -- branchoffs in the "White Rabbit" style, each addressing the specifics of a particular scene. There's also a pair of scene breakdowns by Bird and creative consultant Teddy Newton, dissecting the "Annie Meets Kent" and "Duck and Cover" sequences. Also a featurette devoted entirely to Teddy Newton's unclassifiable, all-over-the-map contributions to the film. There's also a fun smattering of additional motion footage and concept or peripheral art not easily shuffled into these categories. Finally, a piece focusing on Diesel, "Voice of the Giant," has been included.
As a final comment, let me say that The Iron Giant also represents a huge testament to the fact of artistic growth. The fact that the creator of the hateful Family Dog cartoon could conjure such a movie is nothing short of miraculous. Viva humanity and its ability to mature!
With its top-flight animation, both groundbreaking and traditionally satisfying, its overall positive message of free will overcoming programmed destiny, its multi-tiered nostalgia factor, and its massive value as simple entertainment, The Iron Giant is already a children's classic and can put a lump in the throat of the full-grown as well. May it forever find metal to quench its hungers.
The court considers this case outrageous and the prosecutors shall face a bar hearing! Everyone involved with The Iron Giant: Special Edition is free to go -- even Aniston and Diesel, whose crimes elsewhere shall be judged another day.
Review content copyright © 2004 Neil Dorsett; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Audio Commentary from Brad Bird, Tony Fucile, Jeff Lynch, and Steven Markowski
* Deleted and Altered "Story Reel" Scenes
* Branching Specific Featurettes
* Theatrical Trailers
* "The Voice of The Giant"
* Scene Breakdowns with Bird and Teddy Newton
* Teddy Newton "The X Factor"
* Additional Art Galleries
* Theatrical Trailers
* Official Site