Happy Friday the 13th, everyone!
I realize I’ve been posting about a lot of books this month, and no movies. Part of the reason is that my taste in movies tends to run mainstream, while my taste in books embraces the obscure. I’m only half a hipster. But today I’d like to break the pattern by talking a bit about one of my favourite sci-fi movies of all time. It’s a cartoon called The Iron Giant.
When it first came out in 1999, this movie was a huge flop. Warner Bros. didn’t do a good job advertising it, and, well–smart, subtle cartoons that aren’t made by Disney tend not to do so well money-wise. But fortunately, thanks to universally positive reviews, marathons on Cartoon Network, and better DVD marketing, it has gained a bit of a fandom in the years since then. And boy, does it deserve one.
The Iron Giant takes place in 1957, when a huge robot from outer space crash-lands near the town of Rockwell, Maine. A lonely, comic-book-loving boy named Hogarth Hughes finds him in the woods, and the two quickly become pals. Turns out that, despite being 50 feet tall and indestructible, the Giant is friendly and has the mind of a very young child. But it’s the 50s. Nobody is going to believe that a giant metal man from space is harmless…at least, nobody except Hogarth and a neighboring beatnik artist named Dean. Certainly not the paranoid government agent who just arrived in town to investigate a suspicious meteor…
I watched this movie for the first time a few years ago at the recommendation of a friend, with no idea what to expect. The first thing that struck me as “different” about it was the artwork. It’s a mix of traditional and computer animation, and everything about it is beautiful. At times, it feels like you’re watching a painting that moves. And the characters’ expressions are animated so well that I don’t think live actors could have done it better. That includes the Giant’s expressions, which shouldn’t make sense since he’s made of metal, but somehow they show a believable difference between his smile, curious squint, angry face, and sad face.
Artwork aside, though, the first half of the movie is a cute, funny romp about a boy trying to take care of his pet monstrosity without spreading panic throughout the countryside. The Giant is adorable. Hogarth’s budding friendship with him and Dean is heartwarming. Kent Mansley (that paranoid government agent) is hilariously incompetent. And then…the Giant sees a deer get shot in the woods. Suddenly Hogarth is having to explain death and the soul to what is essentially a huge 5-year-old. This was the moment when I realized I was watching something a bit deeper than your average Disney princess movie.
The Iron Giant tackles a lot of the same themes you’d find in the sci-fi of its time period: the fear of nuclear war, suspicion of anything “foreign,” etc. It also deals with more universal themes, like choosing between good and evil, bravery and cowardice. And it does so in a very subtle, understated way, through the story of one unlikely friendship.
The result is a wonderful rollercoaster of emotion. A lot of it is the Giant’s fault; Vin Diesel is crazy good at taking a few simple words and filling them with a million different meanings (“I am Groot,” anyone?). The speech-impaired Giant has maybe fifteen lines in the whole movie, but he’s still one of my favourite animated characters ever. I don’t want to give away the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I will say that if the word “Superman” doesn’t give you feels after watching this movie, then I know a metal robot with more soul than you.
But Vin Diesel can’t take all the credit. The director, Brad Bird, is responsible for my three of my top five favourite animated movies: this, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. The man has some serious talent. The Iron Giant‘s script is also wonderfully written, and all the characters are memorable in their own way–from smart, curious Hogarth to artistic, deadpan snarker Dean. I even love to hate Kent.
This is one cartoon that every sci-fi fan–really, any fan of good storytelling–should watch, even if you’re thirty and have no kids. “You are who you choose to be,” after all. Choose to be someone who’s unashamed to watch great kids’ movies.