The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant film poster

I remember our class reading Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man in Year 5 at school. It started with lots of metal body ports forming themselves together into…well, an iron man. I don’t think we ended up finishing it, but the whole thing did seem rather familiar to me at the time.

Because, of course, it was the basis for a film that we had on VHS at home! A film that I’d watched maybe two or three times, and one I remembered being quite enjoyable.

Fast forward fifteen years or so, and I’ve watched a lot more science fiction, know a lot more about world history, and I come to watch this 1999 animated film once again. Nothing but vague memories to go on this time.

Turns out, all the stuff I learnt about in between changed this film a lot for me – in a good way, I hasten to add!

The general plot is that, just after the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, an unidentified object strikes in smalltown Maine. (Surprisingly, this isn’t a Stephen King novel.) An old sailor witnesses this, and the next day he’s claiming to anyone who’ll listen that the thing was, in fact, a giant robot.

This captures the imagination of a young boy named Hogarth, who leads an otherwise ordinary life – just like everyone else in town. Doesn’t help that Dean, a beatnik-type character and newcomer to the town of Rockwell, says he saw it too.

Squirrels down trousers are no joke.

Anyway, as you’ve no doubt guessed from the title, there is in fact a giant robot. He has the mental capacity of a two-year-old and eats metal three meals a day. Dean works at (or maybe owns…it’s never made too clear) a scrapyard, which becomes the Giant’s home.

Many hi-jinks ensure, as one can imagine when a boy in the 50s gets hold of a robot bigger than the space shuttle.

Hogarth’s not the only one interested in this oversized automaton, however. News travels quickly, especially when tensions between the U.S. and Russia are as palpable as they were at the time this film is set. A federal agent named Kent Mansley is dispatched to Rockwell, assigned to the task of finding out just what it was that crash-landed. Can’t have Russian time-bombs knocking around like they’re paying rent.

He sees lots of bite marks, and his car goes missing right under his nose, but it takes him a long time to get anything concrete. It’s the classic trope – someone with apparent composure and control of a situation ends up looking totally incompetent. It happens when there are giant robots abroad. You know how it is.

Oh, it also turns out that the Giant is a weapon. A very scary one, at that. Whenever he sees something that resembles a gun, his immediate response is to fire lasers at it.

The Iron Giant sits in a lake he's just drained, while Hogarth looks on from the top of a tree.

Jungle ride.

There’s a lot more that goes on, including Mansley renting a room at Hogarth’s house (creepy) and the ever-entertaining part where the Giant jumps into a lake, flooding the immediate area surrounding it.

There’s also a scene which I think the writers of Wreck-it Ralph borrowed. In the scrapyard, Hogarth is playing at being a sci-fi soldier. He pretends the Giant is the “bad guy”. The Giant disagrees; he wants to be Superman, from a comic book Hogarth showed him before. He even has a metal plate with a letter ‘S’ on it. Unfortunately, on seeing Hogarth’s toy gun, the lasers come out. Dean, who sees this happen, is horrified and takes Hogarth to safety, leaving the Giant to reflect on his actions.

Much like the part in Wreck-it Ralph, where Ralph receives his medal from Vanellope…only to smash her car to bits thirty seconds later. There are definitely some parallels there.

I think it’s fair to say that the animation is wonderful in this film. It’s an excellent mix of traditional 2D animation and 3D assets – which, might I add, is smooth as Metal Slug on a CRT – which blend together in such a seamless way that it’s barely even noticeable.

In fact, there’s a lot more 3D going on in the whole film. Many of the backgrounds, trees, buildings, and other scenery are in 3D. The characters have that classic style that, interestingly, reminds me quite a bit of Disney’s Atlantis – despite The Iron Giant being a Warner Bros. film.

I also think there’s a great mix of humour and serious tones in the film. It is a little jarring sometimes – such as in the Superman part mentioned previously. It’s all fun and games on minute, and giant lasers of death the next. Otherwise, there are some genuinely funny moments throughout the film. The Giant’s hand causes a lot of havoc in Hogarth’s house, and his attempts to hide the hand from both his mum and Mansley are a ton of fun to watch.

One of the film’s weaker points is its rather formulaic plot, although I suppose there’s no escaping that in a barely feature-length film marketed for a younger audience. The relationship between Hogarth and the Giant starts apprehensive, grows stronger, breaks down in the middle but builds up again to a crescendo as the Giant proves himself through personal sacrifice. Thing is, stories like this are just there to keep the film moving along and keep it somewhat recognisable. It’s not what happens, so much as how it happens, in a film like this.

The ending’s a real tear-jerker, although the way they get to the ending seems a little heavy-handed. Everything comes to a head when the Giant is discovered, and the military are rollin’ out to Rockwell. Dean manages to convince the general that the Giant isn’t a threat so long as he’s not antagonised; but Mansley gives the order to a nearby submarine to fire a nuke anyway. I just feel that there could have been a better way to handle it. But, either way, we get to see the Giant fly up and Superman punch a nuke out of the sky.

Which, come to think of it, also seems like it was borrowed for Wreck-it Ralph! Except Ralph went down instead of up.

It’s a shame this film wasn’t commercially successful, missing the mark at the box office by around $50 million. Considering its budget was around $75 million, that’s a pretty rough break.

Overall, The Iron Giant is an impressive piece of work. I’m a sucker for animated films, I’m a sucker for retro sci-fi, and I’m a sucker for the nineties. And watching it again after all these years has opened up a whole new dimension for me. Being informed about the socio-political backdrop that this film’s set against really boosts it from a good animated romp to a…er…very good animated romp? Yes. Let’s go with that.

About LunarLoony

IT support technician by day, artist also by day, video game enthusiast by day as well. Not keen on doing things by night... when else am I supposed to sleep? I have been making internet things since about 2005, and advocate for personal websites and blogs and things. I also run Broken Circus, where I make short films about video game history!
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