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Review: 'Iron Giant' a hugely entertaining classic

August 9, 1999
Web posted at: 12:27 p.m. EDT (1627 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- For most filmgoers, the term "animated feature" conjures up nothing but songs and images from Walt Disney movies, and that's only appropriate. Disney has cranked out so many great animated films over the years, their storytelling approach and visual technique have come to define the genre. Fanciful narratives with a handful of catchy tunes and well-defined characters (some of whom are talking animals or dancing objects) is more or less the way it's done.

There are certain pitfalls to any kind redundancy, of course, but by now you're practically volunteering for abuse if you don't drop to your knees and weep over everything Walt's boys churn out. To even imply that there might be another way of making these movies is viewed by many as un-American.

That's because when people do take a shot at making them another way, they usually aren't talented enough to properly pull it off. Or, more often than not, they still keep the ball in Disney's court long enough to remind you that what you're watching is really just a camouflaged rehash.

Theatrical preview for "The Iron Giant"
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Well, Disney's stranglehold on America's collective imagination may finally be coming to an end. Warner Brothers' "The Iron Giant" is not only the best animated feature to be released this summer, it's the single best film to hit our screens so far this year.

No stopping the show

Director Brad Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanlies have freely adapted the late British poet-laureate Ted Hughes' classic 1968 story of a boy and his gigantic robot, "The Iron Man," into a funny, wonderfully touching fable about the destructive nature of war and weaponry. And -- get this -- there's not a single musical interlude.

Bird departs from the accepted Disney approach in a number of key ways. The main characters -- aside from, of course, the sweetly perplexed robot -- are very much human, and the animation isn't exactly heavy on glistening dewdrops.

It's no accident that "The Iron Giant" movie poster is the most evocative one to grace theater walls in years, not that there's been much competition. Set in a small American town in the 1950s, the film's style is more reminiscent of the graphic novels and science-fiction pictures of the Eisenhower era than anything Disney's ever done, with a touch of Max Fleischer's brilliant "Superman" cartoons thrown in for good measure.

The movie's playful look and sharp adults-included tone are a hugely needed breath of cinematic fresh air. It's an overused term, but Bird has a unique vision, and he's delivered a classic. Not bad for a guy who's never directed a film before.

Falling to Earth

The story takes place in 1957, one of the coldest years of the Cold War, when the Soviet-launched Sputnik satellite had Americans nervously awaiting technological Armageddon. One night during a frightening nor'easter, a huge comet streaks from the pouring sky and lands in the ocean. The next night, a young boy named Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal) wanders away from home while his single mother (Jennifer Aniston, doing a gracious, motherly job of it) is working overtime at the local diner.

What Hogarth finds in roaming the woods is the identity of that comet: a massive iron robot hoping to make a quick snack out of an electrical power plant. The unsuspecting giant is soon on the verge of being fried by the current, and Hogarth finds the plant's kill switch just in time to save him from a permanent meltdown. This initiates a charming "E.T."-like friendship between the boy and the intimidating but apparently benign metal giant.

The mechanics of the story are certainly familiar enough. A boy makes a secret, otherworldly friend, then has to hide him from the uncomprehending adult world. But the way in which Bird and McCanlies open up the playing field are unexpectedly wry.

Hogarth soon introduces the giant to a shade-wearing junkman-sculptor (Harry Connick Jr., and the character looks just like him) who adds an amusing element of hip bebop to the proceedings. He appreciates the giant's ability to help him build larger, more sophisticated avant-garde sculptures.

But the fun is often not as pronounced as all that. For instance, Hogarth's schoolteacher shows her students a hilarious "duck and cover" film called "Atomic Holocaust" that's even more ridiculous than the ones children were actually shown at the time. The lyrics of the reel's theme song are buried by classroom dialogue, but they're almost casually receptive to the idea that the kids who aren't listening will be fried to a crisp when the bomb hits.

There's also a nicely utilized catalogue of amusing 1950s rock tunes, the cheesier the better. They never take center stage, but still evoke a time when pop Americana could be recognized as the creation of individual human beings.

Mighty morphing


Individuality, as it is in most kids' films, is an underlying theme, but the story takes an interesting turn when a government agent (the very funny Christopher McDonald) shows up trying to find out what's been eating all the power lines and corn silos in the area. Although the origins of the virtually silent giant are never revealed, it's eventually discovered that he's some sort of superweapon.

The scenes when he's being hidden from the befuddled agent and a company of Army tanks (the tight-jawed General is voiced by John Mahoney of "Frasier") are clever, but the giant's unwilling conversion to a killing machine when he's attacked by fighter jets is surprisingly powerful.

The animators used computer techniques to give the giant his memorably mechanized swivel, and his delightfully inelegant movements are bastardized by his sudden display of firepower. Bird has said that the idea behind the film is "what if a gun had a soul and decided not to kill?" -- and that's certainly a timely thing for children to be hearing. The giant's inward battle against his pre-programmed goal is all the more poignant because we've grown to love his tender demeanor.

The ending, which I won't give away, is unbelievably touching. A tearful sacrifice is made, and we're then rescued from despair by a piece of glorious, life-affirming magic. Here's to hoping that the giant will be heard from again, and that Brad Bird will be given free reign in bringing him to life.

"The Iron Giant" is suitable for most children, but it has to be stressed that adults will find a great deal to enjoy in its quick-witted asides. Tears will definitely fall, but the ending is one of pure redemption. Take any kid you can get your hands on, and don't just drop them off at the theater. Rated PG. 86 minutes.

"The Iron Giant" is produced and distributed by CNN Interactive sister company Warner Bros., a Time Warner property.

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'The Iron Giant' official Web site
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