3 reasons to check out the classic The Iron Giant

With the release of Tomorrowland this year, it is a timely to investigate some other counter-cultural films from the canon of director Brad Bird. Perhaps the biggest and most overlooked film is The Iron Giant. Here are three reasons you should check it out.

What’s it about?

The Iron Giant was released in 1999 and set in the small-town Maine in 1957, where a nine-year old boy named Hogarth befriends a mysterious 50-foot robot that has crash-landed near the town from outer space. Hogarth – who was raised on steady diet of alien invasion B-movies — tries his best to hide the presence of his large, metallic friend from his mother and those around him. He also keeps his new friend a secret from a snooping government agent, but ends up sharing his secret with Dean, a jazz-loving beatnik sculptor who runs the local scrapyard.

Brad Bird has always been very counter cultural with his films – the most recent example being Tomorrowland which was released this year in a landscape of dystopian films for teens – it dared to suggest the future doesn’t have to play out the way we are told it will. In short, it detailed how hope can be a navigation tool when it comes to our future and the planet. In the same way, The Iron Giant dares to suggest that violence isn’t the best course of action to solve problems, but its messages go deeper than this.

It’s based on the book The Iron Man (1968), by Ted Hughes, who wrote the novel for his children.

Why has it endured?

The real strength of The Iron Giant is the relationships between the characters. It’s an intimate, character-driven story with the relationship between Hogarth and his robot friend as the emotional centre. But other relationships form the fabric of the story. Hogarth and his mum navigate the world of the non-nuclear family, which is refreshing for a family film.

The really interesting about the film is that there is no central, moustache-twirling villain, the villain of the film is in fact violence and paranoia — something that was rife in the 50s and 60s era post Cold War. But fast-forward to 2015 and it seems that the film has a relevance for audiences today, surrounded as we are by instant social media that exposes us to images of terror and violence with a key stroke. Bird drew his inspirations for the look and feel of the film from some unlikely sources. He was inspired by the cliched and dated educational films about the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war in the 1950’s – the old black and white “duck and cover” films.

The film is also one of the last batch of hand-drawn American animated films which bridged the gap between fully CGI films by using computer animation to give the film a rich depth of field. The animation style recalls the early, ground breaking Fleischer brothers’ Superman cartoons of the 1940s. Animation houses like the Japanese Studio Ghibli are perhaps the only production houses that remain that use CGI to enhance and augment hand drawn animation.

What can it say to us today?

Although his movie was a box office flop on release, like many classic films ahead of their time, Bird’s premise has proven prescient, given all that has transpired since 1999 in terms of the political landscape we find ourselves in now.

Ultimately the film is about what happens when people lay down their arms and start using their hearts and minds – which is something we can all learn from.

The film is an entertaining, even touching story about compassion and grace in the face of almost impossible odds. It deals with real issues like death and bigotry – pretty heavy topics for a children’s animated film – in an honest and heartfelt way. It also reminds us that heroism comes in many forms.

Families can’t go wrong with a movie like The Iron Giant. Through Hogarth’s words and the gentle giant’s self-sacrificing heroism it proclaims “Guns kill.”

Now there’s a slogan you don’t see or hear much at the movies anymore!

Adrian Drayton

Adrian Drayton is the Director of Reel Dialogue. A film critic and commentator on culture for 20 years, he believes in the power of cinema and the power of God to start conversations about faith and culture. He is also a massive Star Wars nerd.