There is a purity to Brad Bird’s directorial debut The Iron Giant, based on the British poet Ted Hughes’ children’s novel The Iron Man, that is inconceivable in the family film landscape of today.
Of course it was a quixotic outlier even in 1999 — a 1950s-set boy’s adventure rich in period and local detail, with no cuddly animal sidekicks, musical numbers or contemporary soundtrack. Studio execs wanted to give Hogarth a dog and mix some rap in the soundtrack, but Bird refused. A dog would have been redundant: The Iron Giant was already a boy-and-his-dog story, but with the Giant as the dog.
Disney’s Tarzan opened that same year, the last gasp of the exhausted 1990s Disney renaissance, but another animated film that year pointed forward to a coming decade of unparalleled brilliance: Toy Story 2 proved that Pixar was no one-hit wonder, setting the stage for Pixar’s future achievements — including Bird’s follow-up to The Iron Giant, The Incredibles.
Curiously, both Toy Story 2 and The Iron Giant are tied to the cultural and even technological world of the 1950s: the era of crooning cowboys, cheesy sci-fi, atom-bomb anxieties — and, oddly linking the two films, Sputnik, herald of the space age.
In Toy Story 2, Stinky Pete the Prospector bitterly blames Sputnik and the space race for the ascendancy of space-age toys over Western toys, in effect putting Woody and Buzz Lightyear’s rivalry from the first film in historical context.
The Iron Giant actually opens with a shot of Sputnik in orbit, mankind’s tentative first step into a larger universe — a universe from which something else comes hurtling toward Earth, as if in response to the audacity of our efforts to venture into the heavens.
It’s no accident that science-fiction anxieties about extraterrestrial visitors or invaders arose in tandem with our own ambitions for breaking free of our planet’s gravity and atmosphere — or that fears of a war between worlds coincided with the Cold War and its technological proxy, the space race. Literally in the first shot, The Iron Giant masterfully brings all these themes together.
The Iron Giant and Toy Story 2 offer very different looks at 1950s-style entertainment: “Woody’s Roundup” in Toy Story 2; sci-fi thrillers in the vein of Fiend Without a Face (1958) in The Iron Giant.
Fantasy gives way to reality when Hogarth’s TV loses reception due to the sudden disappearance of the aerial on the roof. There have already been stories in town about a giant metal man, and while his classroom instructional videos may not have prepared Hogarth for rampaging robots, the other side of his cultural education has.
We can guess that Hogarth has also been inspired by his absent father’s heroic example; in the absence of other information, a photo on Hogarth’s nightstand of father as a fighter pilot suggests that Hogarth’s father was killed in Korea.
The bomber jacket and helmet Hogarth dons for his mission are the same as the ones we see in the photo. Before setting out into the woods with a flashlight strapped to the barrel of his air rifle, Hogarth throws a sharp salute to his own reflection; perhaps it is really his father he is saluting.
The repeated image of a beam of light illuminating a cone-shaped swath of haze or rain in the darkness — a signature motif in the films of Steven Spielberg — is only the first sign of Spielberg’s influence on The Iron Giant.
The film’s kinship with E.T. is obvious. A young boy being raised by a single mother befriends a visitor from outer space stranded on Earth. The boy teaches his friend to speak English (the Giant’s gravelly voice is supplied by a digitally tweaked Vin Diesel), introduces him to youth pop culture (Superman rather than Star Wars), and does his best to hide him from his mother (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) and from the federal government, represented by an ominous investigator (Christopher McDonald) who is far less benevolent than the one in E.T. turns out to be.
Both E.T. and the Giant have been called Christ figures due to similar death-and-resurrection motifs. E.T. completes the Christological arc by ascending into the heavens after rising from the dead. (The connection is enhanced by his glowing heart, healing touch, and white-robed appearance on his emergence from the “tomb.”)
But the Giant’s death has something E.T.’s doesn’t: redemptive meaning. The Giant sacrifices himself to save others. This still isn’t very Christological, though, because the Giant’s sacrificial act is also an act of self-redemption. Unlike E.T., a peaceful biologist, the Giant is a weapon: an interplanetary war machine, though he’s forgotten this due to damage sustained in his crash landing.
Looking over Hogarth’s shoulder at his comic books, the Giant recognizes a kinship to a robotic destroyer, but Hogarth redirects him: “He’s not the hero, he’s the villain. He’s not like you! You’re a good guy. Like Superman!”
The Giant was designed as a weapon, but he is more than a mindless killing machine. Bird’s key thematic idea for the film was “What if a gun had a soul — and didn’t want to be a gun?” Hogarth has fuzzy ideas about the soul (“something inside all good things” that “goes on forever and ever”), and when he teaches the Giant that “it’s wrong to kill, but not wrong to die,” the moral is a bit muddled by the deer-hunting context.
But Hogarth’s reasoning that the Giant must have an immortal soul — since he has feelings and can think rationally about things — would be approved by St. Thomas Aquinas. In the face of any kind of threat, the Giant’s defensive programming reflexively kicks in (a bit like Jason Bourne, perhaps), but he is a moral agent and can make moral choices. It is our choices, the film emphasizes, that make us what we are.
The Giant’s rejection of his intended purpose, and the film’s broader anti-violence theme, has been interpreted by some as an anti-military message. Yet the military crisis at the end is occasioned not by the military establishment (John Mahoney’s General Rogard isn’t a bad guy by any means), but by a loose cannon, McDonald’s ruthless agent Kent Mansley. Anyway, remember Hogarth’s war-hero father?
In lieu of his late father, Hogarth is supplied with a surrogate father figure, a beatnik sculptor and junkyard owner named Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.). Dean’s creative nonconformity mirrors that of Hogarth, who doesn’t fit in at school, particularly since he skipped a grade.
The theme of oddball specialness runs through Bird’s films (“supers” in The Incredibles; Remy in Ratatouille; young Frank and Casey in Tomorrowland). “Hey, baby, we are cool!” Hogarth gloats as he, Dean and the Giant enjoy an idyll at a remote swimming hole. “Welcome to downtown Coolsville. Population: us.”
Bird’s celebration of giftedness has led some to accuse him of elitism, even of Ayn Randian Objectivist tendencies and of apathy toward the non-gifted. This charge, too, seems overblown.
Take Hogarth’s mother, Annie Hughes (Jennifer Aniston). She may recognize specialness when she sees it (in addition to Hogarth’s gifts, she appreciates Dean’s artistic chops), but she herself is extraordinary only after the fashion of countless heroic single moms working service-industry jobs — extraordinary enough, but not in a way that would impress Ayn Rand or John Galt. Yet the film is hardly apathetic toward her.
More than just specialness, Bird’s films celebrate creativity: Dean’s artistry; Edna Mode’s hero haute couture and Syndrome’s technical wizardry; Remy’s culinary genius. These people who create inspired things and love doing it. Watching The Iron Giant, you can see why Bird relates to them.
The remastered and extended “Signature Edition” of the film debuting on Blu-ray on September 6 includes a pair of restored scenes. There’s a brief early conversation between Annie and Dean that helps flesh out their relationship, and a dream sequence offering a glimpse of the terrifying world of the Giant’s unknown back story, cleverly staged to give Dean as well as the viewer a foreshadowing of what’s to come.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.