The Iron Giant (1999)

D: Brad Bird
S: Voices of: Jennifer Aniston, Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick Jnr.

Enjoyable animated film based loosely on the classic children's story by British poet Ted Hughes. As rethought by director Brad Bird and co-writer Tim McCanlies, the story concerns how the relationship between a young boy and a giant robot from outer space develops amid threats from the army and the U.S. Government in the paranoid 1950s, when fear of nuclear war and alien invasion had all kinds of political resonances which were not part of the original story. It does retain the messianic theme however, with the climax eventually revolving around an act of sacrifice by the giant which saves the world and the suggestion of resurrection. Along the way there are many worthy elaborations on the themes of friendship, prejudice, violence, and personal morality which are handled with a nice blend of drama and humour, and the stylish animation adds a touch of class to the entire affair which serves it well.

There are many curious niggles which make the film a little less timeless than it wants to be though, mostly revolving around its convenient revisionism in the portrayal of the world of the 1950s. The determined single mother voiced by Jennifer Aniston is not credible in this setting, and the helpful beatnik voiced by Harry Coninick Jnr. seems similarly contrived for the purposes of making points rather than adding period authenticity. In contrast the Government agent voiced by Christopher McDonald is more parody than satire, but is more or less in keeping with the setting. The vocal performances are not quite as accomplished as those in recent Disney films (Tarzan), though they are generally effective. Of course the main focus of the story is boy and giant (voiced by Eli Marienthal and Vin Diesel respectively), and though the boy also suffers from a case of timeslip (a nineties boy in a fifties setting), their relationship is portrayed both touchingly and convincingly, which holds the centre of the film and proves ultimately more important than any of the above considerations.

For many viewers, all that matters is whether or not the film tells a good story well and provides moments of humour and pathos in even doses which both entertains and enriches. It does. The Iron Giant is a nice children's film which adults will find quite watchable. It is certainly not a feature-length advertisement for commercial products and tie-in merchandise, and it does seem to have a genuine feeling for the moral fable which makes it worthwhile. There is plenty of visual humour, and there are some spectacular and suitably mysterious scenes which introduce the title character which are as evocative as the relevant passages in the book. The animation of the giant in general is very impressive, achieving an almost three dimensional look which adds to the character's presence. Though the ending is perhaps a tad overwrought, it is a satisfying, inevitable resolution which ennobles rather than exploits its characters and gives the audience the expected emotional catharsis. It is good to see a non-Disney animated feature achieve this kind of consistency and bravely eschew Disney's obsession with songs and anthropomorphic sidekicks, and this alone makes it worth seeing both for casual viewers and animation buffs.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.