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The Iron Giant and Other Disappointments

By Michael Barrier

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I've been intrigued by the handwringing over the poor boxoffice showing of The Iron Giant. No doubt Warner Bros.' limp marketing effort deserves much of the blame, but I think there's a more fundamental cause for Iron Giant's failure: it's not a particularly good movie. And even as a mediocre movie, it suffers by comparison with other mediocre movies, particularly the ones it competed with in the summer of 1999.

Iron Giant DVDBy chance, I saw Iron Giant and Star Wars Episode I on successive days in August, and I was struck by how thin Brad Bird's film seemed when set beside George Lucas's. To be sure, Star Wars is gaudy junk; I was amazed that a puerile boy is the central player in not one but two climactic action sequences, and that he actually succeeds in the second one thanks to his incompetence (talk about pandering to a kid audience!). But the digitally constructed texture of Star Wars is so rich, especially the part of the film set on Tatooine, that The Iron Giant is visually barren by comparison.

The Warner Bros. cartoons of the forties are visually barren compared with the Disney features, and no one complains. Iron Giant was brought low not by its "look," but by the political content of its story—it is a terribly smug film—and, most critically, by the inadequacies of its character animation. It's only because of its failings in those areas that its visual scrawniness is so noticeable.

Both of the critical shortcomings can be traced straight to the director's willingness to take the easy way out. By setting the story in 1957, he saved himself the trouble of trying to imagine how an iron giant might actually be received if it appeared on earth. His answer to that question came readymade, because, of course, in 1957 the United States was consumed by "cold war thinking" that encouraged shooting first and asking questions later. Or so Bird seems to believe.

Start with a tendentious story that patronizes many of its characters, and it can be no surprise that those characters turn out to be made of pasteboard—the mad-dog government agent, the saintly beatnik artist, and so on. Animation can bring to life even such weakly written characters, but not through technical expertise alone; there has got to be the opportunity for true animated acting. Bird permitted no such opportunities. He told John Canemaker, in The New York Times, that he rejected Disney-style casting by character because "the acting gets staler." As opposed, I suppose, to the kind of "freshness" represented by the utterly predictable and consistently literal animated acting in The Iron Giant.

Bird's method—assigning animators to scenes rather than characters—was roughly comparable to how Warner shorts directors like Clampett and Jones made their films. But, as I say in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, those directors played all the parts in their cartoons; the real animated acting took place at their desks before the animators ever picked up a pencil. There is no comparable acting in Iron Giant, by either director or animators. It's certainly easier to make a film the way Bird did it; you don't have to worry about one of your characters bulling his way to center stage and forcing you to reshape the film as you make it—a messy and potentially expensive proposition. But if you shun the risks involved in letting your characters come to life, your whole film is going to wind up dead.

The Iron Giant lost me very early, when Hogarth, having seen the devastation the giant has left behind, sets off in pursuit of it armed only with his BB gun. I didn't believe for a second that he would really be that crazy. The animation could have made me believe in what I was seeing; it could have made Hogarth seem like just the sort of nutty kid who would respond in that way to that sort of challenge. I think the writing actually tries to plant that idea. But only the animation could have brought it off, and the animation falls short—inevitably, given how Bird chose to make the film.

Since the late thirties, animation has been capable of giving to its characters a vividness and immediacy that live action cannot match. Daffy Duck, in a Bob Clampett cartoon like Book Revue, commands the screen more rapidly and completely than any real actor could ever hope to. But animating characters in that way requires achieving an emotional identification with them. It's hard work, and many cartoon makers before Brad Bird have found ways to avoid it. The most common escape route has been a reliance on colorful fantasy; the most sophisticated has been analytical animation of the kind that Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston espouse.

But as Star Wars Episode I demonstrates clearly, live action—or what looks like live action—can now trump almost any fantastic creature or exotic setting that traditional drawn animation can come up with; and computers can analyze and reproduce movement with a fidelity no pencil-pusher can match. Shirk the task of creating real characters—as has been common practice at animation studios in recent years—and you surrender not just animation's strongest claim on the audience's attention, but what is rapidly becoming its only claim. The Disney features have, with spotty success in recent years, tried to conceal the hole at their center by loading up on the other elements that audiences have come to expect in animated films—musical numbers, funny animal sidekicks—but Bird had nothing to fall back on but his story. And since that story is a ham-handed political parable, well…

The one bright spot in The Iron Giant is the animation of the giant himself—computer animation, of course, integrated very successfully with the drawn animation. It makes the giant into something like a real character. I found the giant more believable, and more affecting, than any of the human characters. What I see in the best computer animation, like that of the giant, is some of the same sense of discovery, the same intense pleasure in the possibilities of the medium itself, that I see in the best drawn animation of the thirties and forties. There is in much of the animation of the giant no echo of Bird's anachronistic political agenda, only a delight in a new means of simulating life (so to speak). How sad that the whole film doesn't have more of that spirit.

I was cleaning out my Hollywood Cartoons files the other day when I ran across a letter I wrote to Milt Gray more than twenty years ago, in part of which I talked about the animator/character relationship. In re-reading what I wrote in 1978, I thought it had particular relevance to The Iron Giant and to the current state of animation in general:

There is, for example, the whole question of the identification of animator and character, which is so often brought up in regard to Disney animation, and which really doesn't exist, except in very rare instances. If, say, three animators are working on a short, and each of them animates scenes with every character in that short, it is ridiculous to talk about them as if they were actors, analogous to real actors on the stage or in live—action films. They're doing something else—but what? Too often, I suspect, they are simply going through elaborate exercises that conceal their dilemma, rather than resolving it. … I saw a good example of this today [at the Library of Congress], when I ran A Symposium on Popular Songs.... Many of the close-ups of Von Drake in that film are beautifully animated, with very fluid overlapping action and little subtleties of timing (Von Drake sweeps his arm upward and it drags at first, picking up speed as it goes higher). The long shots are animated much more stiffly and awkwardly; it's easy to guess which scenes were animated by people like Eric Larson, and which by guys like Fred Hellmich. Yet, all of the subtle animation in the close-ups doesn't make Von Drake any less tiresome, or any more believable. Rather, the animation consists of tools that could be useful to an actor, but are not in themselves acting. … I think one reason I have always felt so comfortable with Jones's best cartoons is that there is no mistaking that Jones is playing all the parts; in many of the Disney features, on the other hand, the roles are not filled out, the characters are not completely "there." In live action, even if an actor is playing a part badly, it is still possible to respond to that actor as a person; but in animation—and especially in the Disney features, with their emphasis on homogeneity—if the character has not been fleshed out, there is really nothing else for the audience to respond to. I think that is why so many people are turned off by animation: they feel an absence of human contact, and it makes them uncomfortable.

The phrase that jumped out at me when I re-read the letter was "absence of human contact." That absence is what I felt in watching The Iron Giant, and what I didn't feel in watching Star Wars, even though in the latter case the "human contact" was with actors struggling to survive a foolish script.

Something else I'd stuck in my Hollywood Cartoons files was a 1991 book review by Stuart Hampshire. I'd marked the following passage: "the most enduring achievement of fiction is in the art of illusion, in the invention of characters who have the particularity that distinguishes the actual from the merely possible, in a trick played upon nature." How very rare it is to find in animation characters of that kind; and how much more common to find an "illusion of life" that is, like the animation of Ludwig Von Drake I cited to Milt—and like most of the animation in The Iron Giant—simply a sheaf of animators' maxims.

[Posted June 2003]