The Iron Giant hovers somewhere between nigh-infinite critical praise and semi-obscurity that’s kept it from overblown hype. I think the balance ensured it stuck around as a beloved cult classic all these years. It’s to the film’s credit that the decade-and-half since its release has done nothing to tarnish its quality. Evidently, Warner Bros. must have gotten the memo because The Iron Giant: Signature Edition exists, albeit in a limited theater run.
Hogarth Hughes is a lonely boy living in the small town of Rockwell, Maine circa 1957. On a chance encounter, he runs into a large robot, the eponymous Iron Giant. Hogarth gets more than he bargains for when he tries to keep the alien a secret, especially from the prying eyes of government inspector, Kent Mansley.
On the surface, The Iron Giant is a movie with such a typical premise that it’s almost miraculous that it stood out as it did. Its straightforward narrative means it keeps the plot streamlined and fluently paced, never loaded excessively with pointless exposition or noisy padding. Roughly 2/3rds of it focuses on the slice-of-life shenanigans between Hogarth and the Giant, but not once does it ever feel tedious. Numerous hints and foreshadowing linger just enough to support the radically different final act. It’s easy to dump The Iron Giant with its contemporaries, what with its “A Boy and his X” plot and a blatant anti-gun message that seem slapped in during the second half, but it defines expectations by being more than a sum of its parts.
Brad Bird has always maintained a philosophy that animation shouldn’t be limited to a specific target audience. The Iron Giant isn’t filtered down with silly claptrap and dated pop cultural references in a desperate attempt to glue kids to the screen. It was made with a conscious effort to broader the demographic to appeal to everyone. One of the reasons for its lasting appeal is the timelessness of its setting. The Giant’s arrival meant it was trapped in a decade rampant with panicked assumption over potential nuclear wars and xenophobic attitudes brought forth by the Cold War. Nobody embodies the kind of thinking better than Kent Mansley.
As a villain, Kent is on-the-nose, never showing a redeeming quality in spite of his clownish frustration. As a concept, he is a perfect embodiment of human paranoia and fear of the unknown. More than anything, Kent’s presence guides the film to its logical conclusion, starting off as a buffoon during its lighthearted moments before transforming into a terrifying presence of unchecked desperation. Visually, I think it’s brilliant that the antagonist looks like the quintessential 50s man. In stark contrast, all the major protagonists are defined by their irregularity: Hogarth is an isolated boy bullied for his intelligence, his mother is a widow in an era where a married man was expected to be the sole breadwinner, Dean is a beatnik scrapyard artist who defies the wholesome images of its time, and the Iron Giant is quite obviously an extraterrestrial robot.
While the anti-gun message is anything but subtle, it’s an absolute necessity that drives the film to its heart-wrenching conclusion. It helps that the movie never attempts to demonize the people who uses them. It’s less about the weapon itself than the matter of choice on whether we want to kill or not. Guns are also weapons that a hero like Superman would have no need of either, and The Iron Giant cleverly uses the Man of Steel as the ideal model of a superhero — one Hogarth knows the Giant can be. Who better to idolize than one who uses his powers for the greater good? Who better to embody self-sacrifice than Superman? Instead of shilling the famed DC hero, The Iron Giant effectively draws a parallel between Superman and the Giant, making the latter’s iconic fate richer for it. I don’t think it would have worked half as well if not for the Giant’s childlike wonderment. His curiosity and excitable traits belie his massive size, producing a trove of good jokes and emotional moments.
The Signature Edition adds two new scenes. Sadly, they’re largely extraneous, though I guess they do clarify certain character motivations. The first is inconspicuous enough to blend in, but the second is noteworthy because it involves the Giant dreaming about his past. The Iron Giant’s origin has remained something of a mystery with only implications that the Giant has or is capable of more than what we see. Adding that scene – however abstract it may be – feels like a confirmation of something bigger. It raises questions and presumptions that previously weren’t an issue because the movie never needed to burst out of its bubble. Thankfully, both scenes run a combined total of two minutes; hardly a blip on the overall film. I could take or leave them. Interestingly, both scenes were intended to be included during the making of the film. As can be heard in the original DVD release, Brad Bird lamented them as ideas for a special edition that was, back then, a pipe dream unlikely to ever see the light of day. It’s comforting to know he got the second chance to realize his original vision.
The classic animation is an overwhelming nostalgic trip. Brad Bird has a way of delivering vibrant facial expression and wild gestures. The technology used to bring the Giant to life is a stunning display of artistry, converting the lines into little imperfections that ensures he fits within the structure of the animated world instead of standing out like a dated piece of tech. It looked good then and it still looks good now.
The Iron Giant is an earnest movie, altogether simple and broad in its scope. An iTunes version with extras, including a documentary on the making of the film is expected to be release on October 5th with a Blu-ray edition to follow at some point. I urge anyone who has yet to see the movie to check it out. Sixteen years from now, The Iron Giant still holds up as a sophisticated, heartwarming experience.