Underrated: The Iron Giant

The 1990’s witnessed a serious renaissance in the world of animation, dominated by the resurgence of Disney, the coming of Pixar, and the inception of Dreamworks Animation. Dozens of classics were released over that glorious stretch starting in 1989, but Disney would diminish once more, and Dreamworks would eventually be dwarfed by Pixar’s deeper, broader appeal. These three studios reigned supremely, and it can be easy to overlook any other animated efforts released over those years. This is where we come to The Iron Giant, a Warner Brothers effort, which stands as one of the mightiest achievements of that era. With its involving story, and immaculate attention to detail, The Iron Giant deserves to tower as one of the peaks of modern animation.

The primary driving force behind this wonder of a tale is Brad Bird. If the name is unfamiliar, titles like The IncrediblesRatatouille, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol may be more likely to ring a bell. Prior to all of those films, Bird helmed The Iron Giant and it is his singularity of vision that drives the film. When a mysterious, massive object crashes into the ocean off the coast of Rockwell, Maine and winds up ashore turning out to be a massive mechanical man, everyone in town is initially skeptical, save for a young boy named Hogarth. After an initially scary encounter, Hogarth learns of the Iron Giant’s gentle nature, and does his best to keep him under wraps from the public. However, the American military is hot on the figuring out the identity of the machine, and their suspicions lead them straight to Hogarth. The plot admittedly takes many of the expected obligatory routes, but in this case, the journey matters far more than the destination. The crux of this film is the relationship between Hogarth and the Iron Giant, and it is one of wonder, humor, and loyalty. Though he is mechanical, the title character is the film’s protagonist, for by the film’s conclusion, he discovers his true purpose and the choices he makes feel earned and emotional. Some may be surprised to learn, as I was, that the voice behind the Iron Giant is none other than Vin Diesel. True, his voice is distorted through the use of various sound filters and mixing techniques, but the soul of the mechanical comes through when it matters most and that is a complete credit to Diesel’s performance. The other performances in The Iron Giant are also notable too, featuring such recognizable 90’s voices as Jennifer Aniston as Hogarth’s mother, and Harry Connick Jr. as a hippie who becomes one of Hogarth’s few trusted allies.

Though he would not make his live-action debut until as recently as last year, Brad Bird’s cinematic sensibilities are as keen as many of the live action filmmakers today. Much of The Iron Giant is dependent upon the time and place it occurs, which in this case, is 1950’s America, and Bird completely strikes the right tone. Engulfed in the paranoia of the Red Scare, the town of Rockwell, Maine and the people living in it are visualized in as realistic a tone as possible. The saturation and vibrancy present in the films of Disney and Dreamworks are absent here, full of realistic human textures and surrounding foliage and architecture dominated by forest greens and muddy tans. When one lives everyday under the impending threat of nuclear annihilation, such grounded visuals help to maintain the town’s collective consciousness. The Iron Giant also casts itself from the mold of dozens of films of the 1950s, particularly science fiction and noirs. Plenty of fun homages abound in nearly every scene but never take away from the central focus of the plot. What is truly revelatory about The Iron Giant is how cinematic it is, for there are moments that feel plucked from the realm of live action yet feel completely integrated in an animated environment. From the depth of field, movement of objects in the frame, and editorial precision, all of Bird’s cinematic decisions allow for The Iron Giant to stand apart for the animated competition. Of course, all of these tasty effects and visual flavors are simply service to the film’s main course: the genuine heart and soul of a mechanical man.

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~ by romancinema on May 15, 2012.

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