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Daily Archives: August 19, 2008
After a fairly bleak round of recent movie going that included Kiefer Sutherland battling against crazy mirror-demons through more gory effects than you can shake a blood-soaked stick at, I was feeling kind of down on movies; it’s not that I don’t like the occasional rough sit, but there’s a big difference between a bloody, violent well-made movie and a bloody, violent poorly-made one. (And for those of you who ask “Well, why’d you go see Mirrors in the first place?” the answers simple: Because I was being paid to. As I often note, this job isn’t getting paid to see movies; it’s getting paid to see every movie.) I felt like my palate needed cleansing — or, at the very least, like I wanted to see something good and human and warm after nearly two hours of watching people have their jaws torn loose from their body — and so, on a quiet Sunday night, I sat down and sank into the world of Brad Bird’s brilliant 1999 feature-length debut, The Iron Giant.
Based on the book The Iron Man by British poet Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant is a great example of how a superb adaptation can make a great story even better. Bird (and screenwriter Tim McCanlies) took Hughes’s book and stripped it down to something a lot purer and less ornate, transplanting the story to 1950′s America while still keeping the simple, sincere backbone of Hughes’s story intact. The plot’s nothing special — a huge metal robot falls from the sky, and is found and befriended by a young boy — but the execution of that story in The Iron Giant is a thing of wonder.
Bird’s decision to set the story in the ’50s, with Sputnik overhead and duck-and-cover films playing in school, is something close to a stroke of genius, not only wrapping the film with in air of retro-stylized charm but also evoking the ’50s B-movies the film, at first, most resembles. As young Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal) becomes friends with the huge, playful, mildly confused metallic titan who’s fallen from the stars, the film feels loose, hokey, funny and light. But the ’50s setting also allows Bird to brilliantly use pop culture — and unlike many directors who use pop culture as a crutch, Bird uses it expertly and effectively as just another part of storytelling. Bird’s nods to cold-war era pop culture aren’t ironic, cute or self-conscious in-jokes, but instead moments woven into the warp and threads of the story’s tapestry; a scene where Hogarth shows the Giant some comic books, demonstrating the difference between Superman and “Atomo, the metal menace” and explaining the difference between helping people and hurting them is a quiet marvel of storytelling. Because, later, when things aren’t so innocent, and aren’t so light, those lessons will be tested. Plenty of mediocre kid’s movies tell you that hope is wonderful; the kid’s movies that truly stick with us tell us not only that hope is wonderful, but also tell us the tougher-to-take fact that hope is required to face the facts and failings of a cruel and unkind world.
Bird, of course, went on to The Incredibles and Ratatouille for Pixar, but as good as those films are (and I’d say The Incredibles comes very close to perfection), there’s something in The Iron Giant that makes it truly special. You can tell the film was a labor of love, and the fact that Warner Brothers dropped the ball in releasing it is one of the great mysteries of modern movie marketing; the film’s loaded special edition DVD is superbly put together, almost as if Warner Brothers were trying to apologize for letting the film slip through their fingers on the way to the big screen. Bird’s commentary track for the DVD is full of technical details that make it clear how well he understands animation, yes, but it’s also full of moments that make it clear how completely he understands storytelling. (As a side note, Bird’s next film is supposedly an adaptation of James Dallesandro’s 1906 — a story of the San Francisco earthquake, and his live-action debut; I frankly can’t wait.)
So after watching Kiefer Sutherland kidnap a nun at gunpoint — and God, I wish I was kidding — The Iron Giant didn’t just restore my faith in movies; it may even have restored my faith in humanity. Because while The Iron Giant’s storyline goes exactly as you’d expect it to — the Government comes calling, the Giant remembers how he was not, in fact, made to play with a little boy in the forest — again, it’s the grace and skill and warmth in the execution that makes the film shine. Hogarth teaches the Giant that helping people is better than hurting them, that playing is more fun than fighting and that no matter what we think we’re supposed to do, we can always, each of us, choose to do something else. Those are great messages for kids, to be sure; what makes The Iron Giant a wonderful movie well worth watching is how it quietly, carefully, and gently reminds you that those are also great messages for grown-ups.