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'Iron Giant': What if a gun had a soul?


Director Brad Bird on:

The message of "The Iron Giant"
[460k MPEG-3] or [2.7Mb QuickTime movie]

How true is the movie to the book?
[480k MPEG-3] or [2.8Mb QuickTime movie]

August 5, 1999
Web posted at: 12:41 p.m. EDT (1641 GMT)

By Jamie Allen
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Brad Bird doesn't want to get too "heavy" when he talks about the message behind his new animated film, "The Iron Giant."

But when he's interviewed at CNN Center, it's a day after the shooting rampage in Atlanta that claimed 13 lives, so it's easy to look for deeper meaning when he talks about the seeds of the project. The story -- about a giant robot from space who must choose to overcome the darker forces in his programming -- turns out to have allegorical significance, thanks to recent events.

"The idea that I pitched to Warner Brothers (a Time Warner sister company of CNN Interactive) was, 'What if a gun had a soul?'" says Bird, who directed the feature. "Since then, a lot of people have latched on to the gun thing and I think that's perfectly fine. But what I was intending more to talk about was how we deal with the darker sides of our nature, and the fact that we all have tremendously destructive power in our hands, whether it's by physical violence or words against somebody or manipulating something."

"The Iron Giant," featuring the voices of Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., M. Emmet Walsh and Eli Marienthal, opens Friday. It's based on the 1968 novel published in the United Kingdom as "The Iron Man." Ted Hughes wrote the book for himself and his children to help them through the period following the suicide of his wife and their mother, poet Sylvia Plath.

'I had my own ideas'

Bird was first attracted to the idea by a single drawing. He saw it at a Warner Brothers open house of possible ideas for development -- a rendering of a 50-foot robot standing next to the boy he befriends, Hogarth Hughes.

"So I read the Ted Hughes book and liked it very much, but I had my own ideas that I wanted to go toward," Bird says. "I thought the book was beautiful and poetic but I thought that the movie I wanted to make followed the relationship between the boy and the robot. That seemed to me to be the center of it and I wanted to stay with that story."

Theatrical preview for "The Iron Giant"
Windows Media 28K 80K

The tale that eventually made it to the big screen is set in the 1950s town of Rockwell, Maine, where innocence meets paranoia, and Chuck Taylor-wearing children are shown films telling them to "duck and cover" should nuclear holocaust ever occur.

Naturally, when the Iron Giant crashes to Earth, things get interesting. The giant is a lovable guy, despite his size and penchant for gobbling up all metal objects, cars and railroad tracks included. When the intrepid Hogarth saves the giant from getting zapped into oblivion by a power station, the two become fast friends.

Hogarth, realizing McCarthy-esque forces in the government will shoot first and ask questions later, attempts to hide his friend with the help of the local beatnik artist. But it isn't long before trouble finds them.

'Tone it down, tone it down'

The film is filled with dynamic action scenes. Bird and his crew used computer animation to make the giant come to life, but the other characters are hand-animated, presenting a unique opportunity to meld two technologies.

"The whole movie was about the relationship between the boy and the robot," Bird says, "and in some ways it was also about the classical method of animation shaking hands with this futuristic way."

In other words, from a technological standpoint, the movie sums up Bird's experience in animation.

His career began at an early age. He started work on his first animated film -- a reworking of "The Tortoise and the Hare" -- when he was 11. Soon, he was working under the tutelage of legendary Disney animator Milt Kahl. By college age, he was attending Cal Arts Institute on Disney's dime, and he went to work for Disney.

But Bird, who jokingly describes himself as a "free-range animator," didn't like the direction in which Disney was headed. The old-school mentors were retiring, and the young crop of animators were being taught a more politically correct style by the powers-that-be, Bird says. He uses "The Fox and the Hound" (1981) as an example of the middle-of-the-road product Disney was putting out at the time.

"If you went very far in any direction they would constantly say, 'Tone it down, tone it down,'" Bird says. "I was vocal about the lack of quality and it's not something they wanted to hear."

'The finest version'

Bird left Disney, and has since worked with Steven Spielberg and on the FOX show "The Simpsons."

With "Iron Giant," Bird credits Warner for giving his team the creative freedom they needed to accomplish the project.


"I think that we had a lot smaller budget than our friends at either of the two Ds -- Disney and DreamWorks," Bird says. "But what we didn't have was a lot of micromanagement. If we had a good idea, we could execute it. Everyone knew this was a solar eclipse and might not come around again, so we took advantage of it."

Bird used the opportunity to work away from the messages of traditional animated films.

"Animated films often boil down to the message, 'Be yourself,' and that's OK, but what does it really mean? We are so many different things," Bird says. "What I feel is that you are defined by what side of yourself you act on and those who act on the finest side of themselves are choosing to be the finest version of themselves."

Poet Ted Hughes lived the extremes of success, tragedy
October 29, 1998
Disney officials 'walking on air' over 'Mulan' debut
June 22, 1998

'The Iron Giant'
Warner Bros. Movies
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