Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Iron Giant - A Film by Brad Bird (1999)

I was eager to watch this film as I’d not seen it before, and as I had been convinced by a number of people I trust that it was worth my while. I admit to a bit of a disappointed “oh” when I first began the film; I think because I am so accustomed to the glossy Pixar look that this animation felt outdated. BUT I soon found myself swept up into this magical story, and I rather reveled in the relative simplicity of the animation than otherwise.

I suppose the film is not without its stock characters and near-clichés – the spunky little kid (bullied at school) as the main character; the struggling, doing-her-best, but sympathetic single mother; the artist (a beatnik) on the fringe of society with pearls of wisdom to offer (“you are who you choose to be”) and a heart of gold, ahead of his time (he drinks espresso) and willing to think outside the box; the unimaginative, egoistic, bullying government man – but all of these characters were somehow fresh enough, fun enough, within this story to make me forget they were or could be clichés.

The story itself is well-told and it captured me, and there are any number of especially effective or poignant moments. The opening is great: a “meteor” flashing past the screen, past the Sputnik satellite (a nice move that immediately orients me to the era), hurtling towards earth – cut to a lone fisherman on a raging sea, unable to see the lighthouse – then a light that is not the lighthouse, but our first introduction to the Iron Giant – the terror of the fisherman – then cut to a red dawn and a peaceful seaside town just waking up and a small boy cycling through town towards a place that just says “Diner.” We follow him inside and in the scene that follows we are introduced to (most of) the main characters and themes of the film.

There are some really wonderful moments, too, between the boy Hogarth and the giant. I loved this one:

There is something irresistibly sweet about the giant crashing ungracefully to the ground in order to sit across from Hogarth (it’s a moment that delighted my then 5-year-old daughter, too – and convinced her, finally, that the giant was “a nice giant”).

The film also brilliantly, but not heavy-handedly, sets the stage in terms of the atmosphere of the times – the paranoia about foreigners, about Sputnik, about being spied on, about the nuclear threat – and atmosphere that produces the strike first, think later mentality that precipitates the crisis for the giant and (because the giant only arms itself when threatened) for the people themselves. I loved the scene in the classroom in which the students have to watch an appallingly perky, cheery film about what to do in case of an “Atomic Holocaust”:

Some things did feel heavy-handed about the film, particularly, the government/military people – the general, for example, apparently likes killing (he’s got animal heads on his walls and an animal rug on the floor – these things contrast with the scene in the forest when the hunters kill a beautiful deer and the giant learns about the horror of death) and he probably thinks of himself as a grand cowboy in the Wild West (he’s watching a show with a shooting cowboy racing across the screen).

But ultimately, the heart of the film is the relationship of the giant and boy coupled with the awakening (self) consciousness (and conscience) of the giant. The rather trite phrase “you are who you choose to be” gains a beautiful freshness at the climax of the film when the giant gently pushes the Hogarth away and chooses to be “Superman,” instead of “Atomo,” zooming up to stop the nuclear bomb with his own body and so sacrificing himself. It sounds bland on paper, but the sacrifice of the giant was incredibly moving. Overall, just a captivating, wonderful film I’m eager to recommend as I know it’s one that has passed under the radar for so many people.

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