Movie Review By Andrea Chase
"The Iron Giant" is based on the classic novel by the late Poet Laureate of England, Ted Hughes, but the writers of his filmic incarnation were more true to the spirit of the story than its actual events. The result, approved by Hughes himself shortly before his death, is an adventure film that kids will love and, judging from the reaction of the adult male with me at the press screening, that grown-ups will adore, too.
The film sets the story in the 1950s. Sputnik has just been launched, the cold war is in full swing, and the residents of Rockwell, Maine are as paranoid as the rest of the west. So when mysterious things start happening to the metal in the neighborhood, things like a tractor with a big bite taken out of it, naturally the government investigates and Commies is number one with a bullet on their list of what they suspect is going on. They last thing they, or anyone else, suspect is a robot from space, taller than the trees, and very hungry for anything metallic. And just to make things even more interesting, this robot's got a bump on his head and a case of amnesia. He doesn't know where he came from. He doesn't know why he's here. And he doesn't know what he's supposed to do. The thing is, at his height and with that appearance, people tend make rash assumptions about him. You know how people can be, someone new moves into the neighborhood, they look a little different and they automatically assume the worst. So, who's the villain there?
The first earthling to see him is nine-year-old Hogarth, who's also clever enough to see beyond the metal and befriend him. Eli Marienthal, an actual kid, does the voice not as a caricature, but as a real kid. Nice touch. Hogarth, known for an overactive imagination, is the pride and joy of his single mom, voiced by Jennifer Aniston, who waits tables at the local diner. When his mom rents out a room in their farmhouse to the irritating, ambitious government agent assigned to investigate all the odd goings on in Rockwell, Hogarth has to turn to the local junkman/beatnik/artist Dean, voiced by hipster/singer Harry Connick, Jr. Dean hides his robot in his junkyard, which also keeps his prodigious appetite satisfied.
Meanwhile Hogarth sets about throwing the government agent off the track. I don't care how old you are, seeing this nine-year-old stay one step ahead of a pompous windbag who's not quite bright enough to be classified as a dolt, is fun.
The animation, a nod to all those great Chuck Jones cartoons from Warner Brothers, the studio also behind The Iron Giant, pulls a nifty trick. The big guy is made of iron, and not particularly malleable, so how to render him, well, lovable? The animation team chose the subtle approach. The iron giant doesn't smile, or frown, but his eyes change color and, when intrigued, or moved, or feeling a bit whimsical, his head tilts to one side like an inquisitive kitten.
There's plenty here to keep kids amused. What kid wouldn't want a 40-foot robot as a best friend? When the Iron Giant cannonballs into the local swimming hole, the tidal wave washes Hogarth into the top of a tree. For grown-ups there are things like a wicked send-up of the old duck and cover in case of nuclear attack instructional films. And the writers have also made the giant a little obsessive-compulsive, so that when ordered by Hogarth to repair a railroad track he was about to slurp down like so much spaghetti, he doesn't' just slap it back together. He carefully calibrates the join, fiddling even as a train bears down on him. Everyone, though, will like the message, delivered with sentiment that never becomes mawkish-- you can be whatever you choose to be.
"The Iron Giant" is an instant classic full of humor and heart. I may see films that I like as much this year, but I won't see one that I like better.
© 1999 - Andrea Chase - Air Date: 7/99
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