To this day The Iron Giant remains a testament to the type of country we were, an indictment of the country we are and a reminder of the type of people we want to be.
In the early ‘90s, Disney animated features reaped in every family’s dollar and achieved record box office grosses, so the other major studios beefed up their animation divisions looking for a cut of the action. These efforts were mostly destined for bargain bins and afterthought rentals when parents grew tired of hearing “Under the Sea” and “Hakuna Matata” for the umpteenth time, but one undeniable classic did emerge from the wasteland: The Iron Giant, produced by Warner Bros. and directed by Brad Bird. It has no songs, but that has little to do with the reason it took so long for the film to reach wider adulation.
Warner Bros. seemed like a natural place for the animation boom to thrive. The studio has a legacy with Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes, cartoons that were the anarchical antithesis of the more wholesome fare featuring Mickey Mouse and Friends back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. During that Golden Age of Animation, animators like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones dubbed the bungalow where they worked “Termite Terrace” due to the less-than-opulent accommodations at the famous lot, and that lineage extended to 1995 when Bird took on The Iron Giant. A former Disney animator and creative consultant on The Simpsons, he received a green light to direct the adaptation of Ted Hughes’ well-regarded children’s novel The Iron Man, but Warner Bros had taken a drubbing on their previous animated effort, The Quest for Camelot, so the studio intended to minimize its risk by offering Bird half the budget and production time typically required for an animated feature. Like so many legends of animation who drove through the gates of the Burbank studio, Bird agreed to the terms, leading to Termite Terrace redux.
The success of Pixar and Toy Story was bringing the days of traditional hand-drawn animation to a close, but Bird opted for a composite of the two forms. The giant and some of the effects are computer creations while the human characters, town of Rockwell, Maine and the forest where main character, Hogarth Hughes, discovers the giant were done by hand. It was a decision that embraced both the modern and the past, which is not surprising given how heavily the story relies on Baby Boom nostalgia. After the film’s release in July 1999, the ‘00s were just months away and the tech bubble filled people with dreams of a science fiction future of flying cars and endless possibility. A film set in 1957 that opens on Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that sent America into a paranoid fever, seemed like a quaint time capsule by comparison. These were boom times, and people were too busy selling their old treasures on eBay to worry about surveillance and outside invaders.
Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanlies basically took the bones of E.T., but substituted the diminutive, frog-like alien with a giant, metal amnesiac alien to craft a tale of self-determination, where both boy and alien decide the type of hero they want to be. Like the Spielberg film, the beauty of the narrative hinges on this core relationship. Both are outsiders, but Hogarth is the fraternal figure who takes on the role of educating his de facto sibling. Curious and intelligent, Hogarth has more in common with future Bird protagonist Remy, the lead rat in Ratatouille, than any member of The Incredibles.
Fatherless and a loner, he is being raised on television, Superman comics and the hopes and fears of the nuclear age. He has chosen a diet of wonder that stands in stark opposition to the happy-faced paranoia he receives in the “Duck and Cover” cartoons at school. Most importantly, Hogarth knows what information to impart to the giant Superman and what is adult bullshit.
The giant is one of the great designs of science fiction cinema. Wide-eyed with a jawline placed in a perpetual smile, the machine exudes innocence despite the walking abattoir it becomes when attacked. It is through this duality that Bird and McCanlies make their self-determinist argument: You are who you chose to be. Vin Diesel voices the giant, and it has been worth tolerating his entire career because of this performance. His reading of the line where the giant makes his choice never fails to move the heart: “I am not a gun.”
Oddly, for a movie so intent on reminding us about the fear and paranoia of our past, the choice the giant makes serves as a reminder of all that we have gained. The message that guns are bad came in a post-Columbine world where a school shooting shook the country to its foundation. As active shooter drills have replaced duck-and-cover as the preparation for the existential threat of our times 20 years later, the idea of a major film studio releasing a film with an anti-gun message seems impossible. As for nuclear annihilation, it isn’t any less likely than it was in 1957. If anything, like the measles, it has made a comeback.
Despite all these factors, The Iron Giant endures as an aspirational fantasy. Most of us want to believe that we are the type of people who would protect and educate a stranger from a strange land or are raising the sort of child who would do so. The power of that vision was not lost on critics at the time, who lauded the film and made it a favorite of the Annie and Hugo awards. It was simply a movie abandoned by a studio that failed to see the potential of an animated movie devoid of musical numbers. To this day it remains a testament to the type of country we were, an indictment of the country we are and a reminder of the type of people we want to be.