Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant first hit theaters in 1999. Though it was a critical darling, it was considered a box office failure that was one of the films that “proved” that hand-drawn animation was not viable in a marketplace slowly becoming dominated by the computer.
In the ensuing years, the film has gained quite the fan base and is considered a monumental achievement in animation. It’s amazing what a few years and some perspective can do.
The Iron Giant is not only one of my favorite animated films of all time, but one of my favorite films, period. It is wonderful in every conceivable way. What director Brad Bird did in his feature film debut was prove what he has been saying since the film opened 16 years ago – that animation is a medium of storytelling, not a genre.
The story the film tells could have been told in live action, but the animation gives it a certain something that live action couldn’t. It is a great lesson in storytelling, character development, layout, and so much more.
This past week, The Iron Giant was rereleased into theaters as a Signature Edition – remastered in high definition with the addition of two new scenes. And while some special editions tend to hurt the film overall, these scenes offer new insight into this wonderful story.
At the heart of this very simple story is a rich thematic message that is worth telling, and is the source of the film’s “giant” heart, if you’ll excuse the pun. The film has a lot to say about our own nature, and in the end we realize that we have more in common with that giant, metal man than we think.
I like basically everything about this film. Everything. It’s a perfect representation of a lot of filmmaking ideas, particularly in animation.
The animation is incredible, and makes me long for more hand-drawn animation. Every character has an organic quality that is difficult to explain. But it’s something that cannot be duplicated by computer animation. According to Brad Bird, drawing has the least amount of intermediaries between the artist’s brain and the idea. It is one of the most pure forms of art.
Don’t get me wrong; I love computer animation as well. But I believe, like Bird strongly does, that both mediums of animation have their place in the world, and that hand-drawn animation is still a viable storytelling tool. It’s all about the story, not the tools (though in the case of The Iron Giant‘s initial box office failure, I personally blame Warners’ inept advertising campaign).
CGI can also coexist with hand-drawn animation in the same film. The Giant himself is CGI, but was created in such a way to make him appear as “drawn” as possible, even to the point of creating a computer program to vary the thickness of the Giant’s lines! (In hand-drawn animation, the lines on the characters can have the slightest variance because not every drawing is alike.) It’s something you would only notice if you saw it on a big screen, but it adds authenticity.
All of the voice acting in The Iron Giant is impeccable. Eli Marienthal, who plays Hogarth, is one of the most natural-sounding kid actors I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t a slick, “professional,” precocious performance, but one that sounded like what an actual kid sounds like.
Christopher McDonald’s Kent Mansley is a well-rounded villain, which is hard to come by these days. McDonald’s voice is so dynamic, exuding both smarmy confidence and the insecurity that hides beneath it. Mansley is the type of guy that loses his composure when he’s backed in a corner or not taken seriously. It’s hilarious to watch.
Vin Diesel gives one of the best performances of his career as the titular Giant. His gravely voice is such a great match for that creature. Even though he doesn’t say very much throughout the whole movie, what he does say is rife with emotion and nuance. It’s really no wonder why Diesel was chosen to voice Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. Like the Giant, Groot is another physically powerful being with a childlike mind who says very little, and it works.
The rest of the cast, which includes Harry Connick, Jr. and Jennifer Aniston, do outstanding work. Aniston may be my least favorite, though still great. Her voice retains some of her signature 1990s flourishes, which don’t work well in a movie that takes place in 1957. Connick as Dean makes a great beatnik; his voice is very relaxed, but he can display emotion as well.
The script itself is airtight for the most part. Tim McCanlies and Brad Bird crafted an amazing story. There is set-up and payoff, drama, humor, charm, wonder, everything I want in a movie. The characters are all well-rounded. I just can’t get over how much I love the story.
Going further, this film has a sense of heart and honesty that many films today do not have. It makes one feel warm inside after seeing it. It’s also honest in portraying the time period in subtle ways. Aside from the style and technology, it’s the little things I appreciated. Kent Mansley smoked a pipe, unselfconsciously! No attention is called to it; it’s just part of the fabric of the period. I loved that!
Michael Kamen’s score is phenomenal. He was one of the modern masters of cinema, with credits like Die Hard, the Lethal Weapon series, and X-Men. In The Iron Giant, Kamen strikes an excellent balance between epic and fanciful, with a little bit of 1950s sci-fi thrown in. The melody written for the Giant reassembling himself inserts a bit of whimsy and wonder into the musical pastiche.
Now, you’re probably wondering about those two new scenes created for the Signature Edition rerelease. Unlike some special editions, where new scenes unnecessarily change story beats in a movie (Han shot first!), these two short scenes actually enhance the story. In interviews, Brad Bird explains that these scenes would have been in the final film had it not been for budget and time constraints. They don’t impact the story, but would have made things “a little bit better.”
The first scene is a brief conversation between Annie and Dean at the diner, and foreshadows their budding romance at the end of the film. It creates a new dynamic between the two characters so that their relationship doesn’t come out of left field.
The second scene was my favorite of the two. As the Giant sleeps in the scrapyard, his dreams are transmitted to Dean’s television, which are flashbacks to his origins as a weapon of war from some doomed planet. This scene actually satiated one of my biggest problems with the movie: the origin of the Giant, or lack thereof. It’s not important to the story, but it would have enhanced my understanding of why this thing came to Earth. This new scene does just that.
Since my biggest quarrel with The Iron Giant had been satisfied by that new scene, I had to think very hard about other things that bothered me. This movie works so well that it’s hard to point out flaws.
If I could point to one thing about this movie that has always bothered me, it’s the physics of the Giant himself. A thing as big as he would move slower than he does in the film. Granted that he wouldn’t have moved like the lumbering AT-ATs in The Empire Strikes Back, but there needed to be more weight and impact behind the Giant. Think of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park – the power and weight in her walk needed to come from the Giant.
Themes and Thoughts
For being such a simple film with a very straightforward story, The Iron Giant packs in some very heavy themes about life and death, our own human nature, and the nature of love itself. It even gives a thoughtful analogy for Jesus’ ultimate act of love. This film really tugs at the heart, and I think that is because we all feel and understand these ideas on some level.
“Souls don’t die.”
In the junkyard, the Giant tries to wrap his head around the concept of death after the shooting of a deer earlier. Hogarth explains in his own way that even though people eventually die, a part of them lives on forever – a soul. This is very heavy stuff for a supposed “kids’ movie,” and I’m certain it gets an emotional response from the audience. There is something within us that inherently knows what the Giant said to be true, or at least we hope it to be true.
The Giant’s thought begs the question that if true, where do souls come from? We as humans are unique beings on this planet, able to contemplate our very existence and role in the world. As much as we would like to humanize our animal friends, they lack this attribute of self-awareness. What it points to is that we were created as unique beings by a loving God who fashioned us all as individuals (Psalm 139:14).
The Giant himself is probably the most interesting character in the film. He possesses attributes we can all relate to, and is an analogy of our own nature. Each of us, like the Giant, have the potential to do great harm. The Giant was created as a weapon. While we weren’t created as weapons, sin corrupted what God created and is now part of our makeup. The Giant has the ability, just as we do, to choose if he was going to do good or bad.
While we can definitely relate to the Giant, I also feel that there is a great deal to learn from Kent Mansley. At the climax of the film, in order to destroy the Giant, Mansley defies orders and frantically commands the launch of a nuclear missile that would destroy Rockwell in the process. This foolish move was the culmination of many bad deeds on the part of Mansley throughout the story, and the missile was the apparent consequence of all of his actions. He tries to run from it, but is kept there by the military, forced to accept his fate.
Mansley’s pattern of behavior is a very interesting analogy of our own sin patterns. Because of sinful things we have done, we all of a “nuclear missile” of sorts hanging over our heads as a consequence. Only our “missile” is an eternal punishment. We all try to run from it or ignore it, but there it sits, awaiting its impact at the end of our lives when all are judged by the Ultimate Authority.
“Hogarth…you stay. I go. No following.” – The Iron Giant
However, the town is saved, as well as the cowardly Mansley, when the Giant flies up to meet the missile and seemingly destroys himself in the process. The Giant had every reason to simply fly away and let everyone die, but he didn’t. The Giant loved Hogarth and the people so much that he sacrificed himself to save them.
This sacrifice was the emotional apex of the film, and was the ultimate payoff for the main characters’ arcs. There wasn’t a dry eye was in the house, including my own. Most of us respond to this kind of self-sacrifice in a very reverential way, and there’s a reason for that.
“Where I am going you cannot follow…” John 13:36
In order to save us from our own destruction, Jesus sacrificed Himself, endured all our sins, and died a horrible death He did not deserve. He was the only being capable of doing such a deed because He was both God and man — a perfect sacrifice. We can now live our lives in freedom because of what He did.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13
The Giant’s selfless sacrifice is one of the better cinematic analogs for Christ done in a long time. And what makes it brilliant is that it flows naturally from the story. There’s even a “resurrection” of sorts at the end! For all I know, Brad Bird might not be a believer. But the power of that theme shines out of the work nonetheless because we all think certain ideas have appeal, even if we don’t know why.
The Iron Giant is an amazing movie, and definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen it already. With beautiful animation, a solid story and wonderful characters, it’s a film that is truly timeless. The added scenes of the Signature Edition enhanced in viewing experience and were worth inserting. I am eagerly awaiting the release of the Blu-ray, which I’m hoping will be soon.
Despite its seemingly simple story, The Iron Giant has a big heart, and its heart contains a lot of really interesting themes about the nature of humanity and God’s amazing love. We all have the potential to do good or bad, but in the end it is our choice. And we all have made bad choices in our lives. Luckily for us, we have our own Savior who loves us enough to sacrifice Himself so that we don’t have to endure the ultimate punishment for our sins.
Originally posted on Reel World Theology.
The Iron Giant (1999)
Signature Edition (2015)
Warner Bros. Animation
Starring Eli Marienthal, Christopher McDonald, Jennifer Aniston,
Harry Connick, Jr., John Mahoney and Vin Diesel
Written by Tim McCanlies
from a story by Brad Bird
Based on the novel The Iron Man by Ted Hughes
Directed by Brad Bird