Most cartoons are created as entertainment, to placate children for a couple of hours. There are pretty colors, goofy characters or talking animals, and a few chuckles, but rarely a story worthy of dissection. Sometimes an animated film is released that delves deeper, delivering a not only a wonderful story and animation, but a message that can resonate with both young and old alike. Such a film is "The Iron Giant", the absolutely brilliant and criminally neglected 1999 film from director Brad Bird. The movie dares to question the nature of stereotypes, war, and more deeply, the ability we have to change ourselves into what we want to be.
The story of "The Iron Giant" is a simple one. In 1957, a robot from outer space lands in a small fishing town in Maine. He is discovered by a young boy, who befriends the giant metal creature. The seemingly innocent, almost childlike giant turns out to be a giant weapon, which raises the fears of the townspeople and the US government, blinding them to the real enemy. This is a variation on a science fiction plot that has been used since the genre first appeared, the "stranger in a strange land" who inspires fear and misunderstanding in those who come into contact with it. Usually, those strange creatures are here on Earth to enslave us or kill us or destroy our planet. What made "The Iron Giant" so great is how it makes us the enemy. Director Brad Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanlies made the decision to set the film during the Cold War, when American fears of nuclear holocaust were all too prevalent. Our fear of anything foreign made us as a country question our own neighbors and at times our families. Could they be communists, spying on us and plotting our destruction? The Cold War inspired many of the sci-fi films that "The Iron Giant" mimics, but the theme is one that resonates throughout history, and one that would rear its ugly head only two years later, when 9/11 would have people wondering if that woman wearing a hijab at the market also had explosives strapped to her, or if their friendly Muslim neighbor was secretly plotting against them. The filmmakers knew that fear and suspicion unfortunately know no time constraints.
One of the other central themes in the film is best summed up by Hogarth, the young boy that befriends the Giant: "You are who you choose to be." The Giant is, for all intents and purposes, a huge weapon, but he longs for something greater and more purposeful. Instead of identifying with Atomo, the large killer robot in the comics Hogarth reads, the Giant dreams of being Superman, the hero that can save the world and be loved by all. He knows what he is, but learns that it's never too late to change and become the person (or giant robot) you want to be. In the end, he takes control of his own destiny. It's an incredibly powerful lesson, and one that is sorely lacking from all art these days.
Of course, you can have strong themes that resonate with an audience, but none of that is going to matter if your film isn't very good. Luckily, this film is one of the most beautiful, most well written films of the last couple of decades. The animation, a combination of hand drawn and computer, gives you the best of both worlds. The hand drawn gives the film natural feel that is sometimes lacking in computer animation, while the computer work allows the Giant, to actually inhabit this world, not look out of place. The script, written by Tim McCanlies, doesn't weight down the audience with these serious themes. Instead, the film is filled with humor, excitement, discovery, and even some lessons. One of my favorite scenes is the "Duck and Cover" sequence, which mocks educational films of the 1950's. In it, as a nuclear bomb falls from the sky, a young boy hides under his desk and is saved, though he is now precariously perched on in the middle of a giant crater.
Upon its release, the film was considered a major disappointment by Warner Bros. It did, however, find a small but incredibly loyal audience, many of whom blamed the poor marketing job the studio did. While bad advertising is partially to blame for the film not bringing in a bigger audience, I can understand how the marketing department must have felt after seeing this movie. How exactly were they supposed to market "The Iron Giant"? There are no cute creatures or gimmicky scenes. There weren't really any giant battles, and there were no catchy songs. The time period of the movie was almost 40 years before most of its target audience was born, and most of those children's parents hadn't been born either. Like another Warner Bros. film that didn't catch on in its initial release, "The Shawshank Redemption", "The Iron Giant" didn't really fit into an easily marketable genre, and a movie like that really needs time to build up word of mouth, not an easy thing in our fast paced world. Also remember, this was 1999, and though it had only been released 4 years earlier, "Toy Story" had suddenly and completely changed the landscape of animated films. All of the studios were heading towards completely computer animated movies, including Disney, the company that invented the feature length animated film. It wouldn't be until the last couple of years that hand drawn animation would begin to have its resurgence, so even on its release, "The Iron Giant" already seemed like a relic of a forgotten age.
Since its release on DVD, "The Iron Giant" has found a greater audience, and is considered to be one of the great animated films of recent times. While Brad Bird would go on to direct two more critically acclaimed animated films, "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille", "The Iron Giant" is still his crowning achievement. 13 years later, it hasn't aged one bit, because like most timeless art, it creates its own world and brings us in. It exists in a specific time and place, but its lessons can apply to kids and adults in 1999, 1957, 2012, and I'm sure well into the future.