A boy and his toy: The good buddies of The Iron Giant

A cartoon with a heart, director Brad Bird's The Iron Giant is based on a children's book by poet Ted Hughes, who wrote it in 1968 to console his children after their mother Sylvia Plath committed suicide. The film is also a loose spinoff of a rock opera (from Hughes's story) by the Who's Pete Townshend--another expert on damaged psyches. Given these sources, The Iron Giant comes prepared to take on Big Themes involving the absent parent, the mysterious outsider, and the reflective artist vs. the unthinking soldier. And as a non-Disney animated feature that has nonetheless been drawn with Uncle Walt's visual richness, the film demonstrates how caricature can shine a powerful light on cultural history and current myth. You might say it's a parable with big plans.

Basically, Bird's movie is E.T. sideswiped by The Terminator: A fatherless child (voice of Eli Marienthal) encounters a visitor from space (voice of Vin Diesel)--not a stubby little botanist with a glowing finger, but a 50-foot, metal-eating robot with the power to kill. The giant also has the power to reason, to listen and ask questions. Like a dutiful pet working its way up the evolutionary scale, this alien immigrant wants to do the right thing. Parents, government, and adult citizenry don't realize this, however, and so the innocent child and his strange new pal (almost an imaginary friend) are put in danger.

Set in the late Fifties, The Iron Giant plants some clever historical hints. The little boy is named Hogarth, in a clear nod to the famed English engraver whose satirical works are an ancestor of the comic strip. The kid lives in the small, coastal town of Rockwell--and while there are no folksy, corduroy-clad magazine illustrators with pipes here, there is a town beatnik named Dean (voice of Harry Connick Jr.), who knows how to make sculpture out of junkyard scrap (something close to plowshares out of swords). If the year is 1957, and the satire of William Hogarth is meeting the Americana of both Norman Rockwell and James Dean on the frontier of alien invasion and Cold War paranoia, where does that put us? Not in Disneyland, that's for sure--and not quite in reality, either, but a mythic version of it.

Not every character's name functions like a job description, but the bad-guy government investigator is Kent Mansley (voice of Christopher McDonald), a would-be Father who Knows Best. In other words, the government is paternalistic: At school Hogarth watches absurd Civil Defense cartoons about surviving nuclear attack. Such satirical grace notes also show up in the character design, which seems more than anything like a tribute to those cheery, stylized ad graphics from the postwar era. Kent's square-jawed face recalls those cartoony pitchmen for insurance, engine oil, or pipe tobacco, while Hogarth's mom (voice of Jennifer Aniston) looks like Betty Crocker's younger sibling, or the sorority sister of that other Betty (Archie's pal). Building so neatly on all our postmodern interpretations of "The Fifties," the ironic design of these characters is certainly no accident.

If The Iron Giant often seems different from Disney, it's partly because there are no sidekicks or songs. Interestingly, Bird started with Disney as a dewy 13-year-old, landing an ad hoc apprenticeship with one of the studio's "Nine Old Men." But his career's work has been outside of the Magic Kingdom: He created the Family Dog concept for Steven Spielberg, and for many years he was a leading producer of The Simpsons. In fact Bird was the guy who pushed Matt Groening's show away from the flat look of comic-strip panels by introducing long takes, extreme angles, and rapid-fire montage sequences. He's a "cinematic" animator, which is why it made sense for Warner Bros. to give him free rein: The studio's earlier animated features (particularly Anastasia) were too Disney-like and yet, in the public's mind, not "Disney" enough.

Bird's visual style, his historical satire, and the emotional simplicity of his story make The Iron Giant more like a live-action movie than a cartoon. There has been a lot of advance buzz about this movie, and some of it is earned. If you're familiar with some of the more powerful big-theme animated shorts of the last decade (such as Balance, or Bill Plympton's work, or some of the darker pieces from Nick Park's colleagues at Aardman Animation), however, then The Iron Giant probably isn't going to fill your plate. In many ways, it's a competent diversion from the mass-audience norm, but even with its sharper jokes, it's still a mass-audience kind of movie.

And there are some missteps. Although he has been touched up to seem hand-drawn, the Giant is clearly computer-animated, and he figures in some big action scenes (stopping a train, demolishing a power station) that are a little too exciting for comfort. Parents who appreciate the plot's "Don't Kill" message will be disconcerted when the Giant comes close to realizing his original mission--that is, to destroy anything that shoots at him. Like a vintage Transformer toy, the Giant suddenly sprouts a variety of killing accessories in a brief but disappointing example of aestheticized violence.

For the most part, The Iron Giant is beautifully done, and it's smart enough to tap both emotional and cultural meaning without the benefit of cute animals. Best of all, it mines quasi-historic themes about sensitive kids, fatherless families, unthinking governments, and epidemic paranoia with sophistication. But it also falls prey to the myth that technology, as in sheer hardware, is really cool no matter what it's designed to do. The Iron Giant may yet inspire a new, more thoughtful kind of animated feature, but for now the road out of Disneyland is only half-paved.


The Iron Giant is playing at area theaters.

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