Filmmaker and animator Brad Bird has been recognized for many of his high-profile movies over the years, including The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. His films have a sense of fun that pays homage to 1950s B movies, while maintaining strong attention to visual detail and incorporating a sense of heart that is missing in many contemporary animated films. While Bird’s aformentioned films are well-known, the first animated feature Bird directed, The Iron Giant, is one of his best. When it was released, it had weaker marketing than most big-budget animated films and was a box-office disappointment. This is a shame. The film is so well-executed that I believe it offers serious competition to the best films from celebrated animation studios Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli.
The Story: In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, a 9-year-old boy named Hogarth Hughes lives with his widowed mother. Hogarth is an intellectually advanced boy with an overzealous imagination and is often bullied by his peers. On a night that will change everything, he discovers a robotic alien that has crash-landed in the woods and appears to be designed as a killing machine. However, through his interactions with Hogarth, the Iron Giant learns peace and friendliness, and the two become fast friends. While everything seems to be looking up for Hogarth, he and the Iron Giant must also avoid the wrath of a government agent who seeks out the destruction of the giant.
Why It’s a Good Family Movie:The Iron Giant’s massive heart shines throughout the film. When making it, Bird asked the question, “What if a gun had a soul, and didn’t want to be a gun?” At one point, the giant even wonders whether he can ever have a soul, as he was a machine built for the purpose of killing. Hogarth tells him, “You’re made of metal, but you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul.” The film conveys the important message that you can become the type of person you want to be, rather than what society dictates you should be.
Additionally, the film presents themes that counter xenophobia. Kent Mansley, the government agent, tells Hogarth, “You think this metal man is fun, but who built it? The Russians? The Chinese? The Martians…Canadians? I don’t care! All I know is we didn’t build it, and that’s reason enough to assume the worst, and blow it to kingdom come!” Mansley is set on destroying the Iron Giant, even if it means destruction and violence to America itself. That’s how paranoid the man is. He fears outsiders and, rather than trying to understand them like Hogarth does, he criticizes them with xenophobic stereotypes and has an immediate urge to annihilate them.
Finally, on the technical side, the film combines the hand-drawn animation of old with computer animation of new. This works well, as the computer-animated giant looks more technologically advanced and imposing compared to everything else that is hand-drawn. Furthermore, the film’s animation manages to capture a nostalgic undertone, with its small-town New England vibe and autumn colors. It feels almost as if it’s set in our own Green Mountain State.
Age Recommendation: The movie is mostly tame and inoffensive. In one scene, a deer is shot by hunters, which may be startlingly due to its suddenness and brutality. In the end, things escalate between the military and the giant. They shoot him with military weapons and the giant goes into beast mode, causing explosions that would please Michael Bay. In the end, a nuclear missile is launched, and the Iron Giant sacrifices himself to save the town, which may be disturbing to younger children. I would recommend this film for ages 7 and up.
The Iron Giant is streaming on HBO Max and is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and iTunes.