When I first saw the trailer for Warner Bros.' latest animated feature The Iron Giant, the thought that immediately came to mind was "E.T. with a robot." Little did I know just how much truth would lie in that statement. Rather than a cheap ripoff of that family classic, The Iron Giant is a newly-minted one in its own right, spinning a yarn that is fun, funny, and, most crucially, poignant and inspiring--much like Steven Spielberg film of 17 years ago.
Any film, whether live action or animated, lives or dies by what's on the page, and the key ingredient in The Iron Giant's success is the script by Tim McCanlies and director Brad Bird, based on the book The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. A basic plot synopsis--youngster Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) finds a giant alien robot (Vin Diesel)--fails to do justice to what the story entirely encompasses. It is on this simple plot thread that McCanlies and Bird hang a number of well-developed themes: friendship, choosing one's identity, and a staunch anti-violence stance.
The Iron Giant may sound overly preachy and heavyhanded, but that could not be farther from the truth. These themes are subtly and seamlessly integrated into the story, as is the film's witty sense of humor. The film takes place in 1957, and Bird not only captures the look and atmosphere of that bygone era, but also its state of mind--most notably the post-WWII fear of an atomic holocaust, which is mined for some good satiric laughs (a sugarcoated classroom film on what to do in the event of a bombing is especially funny). That sense of paranoia also goes a long way in explaining character motivation, namely that of government Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), who believes the Iron Giant is a weapon of war that must be destroyed.
Smart touches such as those may fly over the heads of the children in the audience, but the action and humor of The Iron Giant will not fail to delight them and the adults in attendance. Young and old can also share in the enjoyment of the believable characters. The youthful exuberance and curiosity of both Hogarth and the Iron Giant are incredibly endearing, a quality bolstered by the vocal performances of Marienthal and Diesel. McDonald's Kent is an amusingly hissable baddie, and Jennifer Aniston and Harry Connick Jr. disappear nicely into their roles as Hogarth's mother and beatnik friend Dean, respectively.
The animation in The Iron Giant won't soon erase memories of the intricate camera moves featured in Disney's Tarzan, but it is a huge step up from Warner Bros.'s recent animated embarrassments, Quest for Camelot and the awful The King and I. The clean yet simple art style is a better fit for this story than any more technologically advanced approach would be; it lends a nice comic book-like air to the proceedings. (Not coincidentally, the Iron Giant's resemblance to a character in one of Hogarth's comic books is a prominent point.) The simplicity doesn't come at the expense of expressiveness, however, for all the characters' faces--even the Iron Giant's--vividly register on the emotional scale.
The strength of those emotions took me quite by surprise by the close of The Iron Giant, when I realized just how much I grew to care about these characters and their fates. With its wit and adventuresome spirit, The Iron Giant is a superbly entertaining film for the entire family, but what makes it transcendent--much like E.T.--is how deeply it is able to touch its audience.
RATING: ***** (out of *****)
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