Set in small-town America at the height of the Red Scare, the Iron Giant is a movie about a boy who discovers a giant robot and defends it from a snooping government agent, but more importantly it is a story about resisting paranoia and being who you choose to be.
The Iron Giant is a special movie in more ways than one. It's a rare example of true science fiction, using the story of an extraterrestrial robot and his human friend to make points about human nature, in a medium that usually gives us flashy and empty spectacles - where "sci-fi" is usually shorthand for "effects-driven action movie". It is also one of the few "family movies" that can honestly entertain the whole family from beginning to end, without talking down to the kids with fart jokes or including inappropriate adult humor and pop culture references to keep the parents interested. It is an ageless movie. There aren't many movies like that, and there were even fewer in 1999.
Animation is big business these days, partly because of the movies Brad Bird directed for Pixar Studios. But when Bird pitched his vision for the long-stalled Iron Giant project to Warner Bros. he wasn't yet a household name, and animation basically meant kids' movies that were Disney's exclusive domain.
So Warner gave Bird free rein over the project, and when he completed it on time and in budget they rushed it to release with no promotion. No teasers attached to that summer's blockbusters. No action figures on the shelves. No comic books, no viral campaigns, no Happy Meals, no video game. And they sat back and watched while almost every critic who noticed the movie sang its praises - and audiences, who had heard exactly nothing about this movie, completely missed it. In a couple of weeks it was in and out of theatres.
And, as often happens when a top-quality movie is mishandled by a big studio, the movie ended up being nominated for awards ranging from Golden Globes to Hugos and Nebulas, and appeared on all kinds of Best of the Year, Best of the Genre and Best of Breed lists. Warner were lambasted by everyone who had actually seen the movie. Brad Bird pitched and sold his next idea, a little project he called the Incredibles, to the folks at Pixar who believed in animated movies and were getting major, proper distribution through Disney. And it was probably the last time a major American studio would undersell a movie like Giant just because it was only a cartoon.
You may not have noticed yet, but I love, love, love this movie. People raved about the Incredibles, but I've always thought the Iron Giant was better than that one in every aspect except the eye-candy. In fact, while I've enjoyed every Pixar movie that I've seen, I think the Giant has them all beat. This, I think, is a movie that Hayao Miyazaki could have been proud of. Except there would have been a lot more flying in it if Miyazaki had done it. And Hogarth would have been a girl. But you know what I mean.
Based on a book by Ted Hughes and originally developed as a rock opera by Pete Townshend, the story of this "Iron Man", as it was originally called, took on a new shape under Brad Bird's guidance. The central elements of the movie are themes he would revisit in Ratatouille and the Incredibles: free choice versus destiny, and friendship and courage overcoming society-wide paranoia.
The movie is set in a small town in the year after Sputnik's launch, when anti-Communist paranoia was at its worst, but its message applies just as well to modern PATRIOT Act society. National security is the issue on everyone's minds then and today, and when it isn't there's an eager G-man ready to remind us about it. There is an enemy out there that must be stopped. We don't know who or what he is, we don't know why he's here or what he wants or what kind of threat he really poses, but he must be found and stopped at any cost. With all that that implies.
A little ways into the movie, a second theme begins to show up: the quest for self-definition. Brad Bird's heroes are not who they were born to be or who society thinks they should be - they are who they choose to be. This is a pretty good theme for any time, if you ask me. And who does the Iron Giant, who is pretty clearly "meant" to be an intelligent weapon of mass destruction, choose to be?
Okay, so the answer to that is not exactly a huge surprise, seeing as he's the hero of the movie and his voice is done by huggable tough guy Vin Diesel. (Not to mention it's foreshadowed about thirty minutes into the show). But it's not the destination, but the journey, that makes this giant's odyssey worth watching.
And I defy even the most hardcore Vin Diesel wannabe to try not to show a tear or two when the giant makes his choice, or to keep from grinning like a ten-year-old at the very last scene. Go on, I double dare ya.