An alien robot crashlands on earth and befriends a lonely boy.
Directed by Brad Bird
Starring Eli Marienthal, Vin Diesel, and Christopher McDonald
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
Why is it that the ending is leaving me a teary mess, despite having watched The Iron Giant so many times? Again, everything is fine-tuned for cumulative, overwhelming power. I had forgotten how foregrounded the lines from the climax are throughout the film. Dean (Harry Connick Jr) is the only one in the town able to convey the ‘you are who you choose to be’ motto, and he imparts it to Hogarth who tells the same thing to the Giant (Vin Diesel). The ‘me go, you stay’ exchange takes place early in Hogarth’s and the Giant’s relationship, played for a joke at first but then as an absolute wallop. Bird and co-writer Tim McCanlies are attuned to the character of Hogarth, drawing him as a gangly kid while not making him too intelligent and communicating his root decency, all in an otherwise short movie. But for his goodness, how does the Giant adapt to his new world? As if it isn’t packed with emotional triggers (Hogarth’s dad is never mentioned beyond a photo of him in a fighter plane that shows everything the viewer needs to know), The Iron Giant also includes a teacher-student morality play, where Hogarth shows the Giant how to be and then the Giant internalizes and executes his vision. Who wouldn’t fall for the film’s charms when there are so many things to grab onto?
Vin Diesel has never been anywhere close to how great he is here as the Giant. I’m not inclined to like anything he does, but I am convinced that this is one of the great voice-over performances, near the top with James Gandolfini in Where the Wild Things Are. The bewildered and scared grunts he makes when coming out of his bloodlust are heartbreaking, as is his glee at discovering that he can fly like his idol Superman (I just caught myself tearing up when writing this sentence). Some of this is in the animation, beautiful in its simplicity and timelessness, but Vin deserves much of the credit. It’s easy to hear the smile curling on his face when he says his final, shattering line, as apparent as the smile coming across the Giant’s face. I think of this as a practically Method performance, a melding of character and actor that is far more impressive than actually seeing Vin in the flesh onscreen.
Christopher McDonald’s Kent Mansley is the perfect foil to the Giant’s and Hogarth’s innate goodness. If he was once like them, that has been buried under fear and insecurity. If great villains are recognizable, then Mansley’s a great villain. He’s completely lacking in any sense of humor about himself or his mission, making him an easy foil for Hogarth or Dean or a smiling oven mitt. He’s the greedy and jealous embodiment of ugly America, unable to change his mind in the face of countermanding evidence and sure that everything we have is earned and desperate to hang onto every scrap of it, no matter the cost. Strangeness must be targeted and destroyed, and comforting lies like Duck and Cover must be told. McDonald is ideally cast in the role. Once you’ve become famous for being outwitted by Adam Sandler, it’s not too far to being outwitted by a child.
It’s interesting to think about this in terms of Bird’s trifecta of animation perfection. He followed The Iron Giant up with The Incredibles and Ratatouille. If the Iron Giant is about choosing to be one’s best self, The Incredibles is more deterministic. Its characters are restricted by people less gifted than they are, and the film treats it as a great sin that someone as godlike as Mr. Incredible should have to sit in an uncomfortable cubicle, hawking insurance. Conversely, Ratatouille stresses that greatness can come from anywhere, somewhat splitting the difference between the two. All three are films with something on their minds, and Bird seems like he’s wrestling with ideas over the course of the eight years between releases.
I just wrote a review of The Last Jedi in which I take great satisfaction in that film’s aggressive defenestration of hardcore Star Wars fans, but The Iron Giant gives a corrective to that line of thinking. The Giant is inspired to be his best self by the pop mythology of Superman. Maybe those Reddit theorizers who had a grand thesis on Snoke’s backstory will one day be inspired to do something heroic because of Luke Skywalker. Just like Star Wars and its basic, elemental morality, The Iron Giant is also incredibly old-fashioned, befitting its Americana setting. Sometimes, the classics are classics for a reason. Everything about The Iron Giant works, from its humor to its pervasive ability to get viewers blubbering in their seats. This is an all-timer, as easy an A as they come. A