The Iron Giant
[Click here to go to my Essay on The Iron Giant.]
From Bill Benzon: I saw your recent remarks on Iron Giant, which I recently watched on
DVD to get a little perspective on the guy who has more recently done The
Incredibles and Ratatouille. It was an eerie experience, for the
governmental paranoia that governs that film seemed just right for a country
whose government is now waging an open-ended and ill-defined War on Terror.
That is to say, that mid-'50s Cold War paranoia hasn't gone away; it's just
found a new target.
I am not, of course, attempting to argue that Bird somehow anticipated the
invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror, only that he put his finger on
something that seems to be deep in our national character—as you may
recall, one of the classic books on American politics is Richard
Hofstadter's 1964 The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It's a bit like
how M*A*S*H, which, though set in the Korean War, responded to
contemporary anxieties about Vietnam.
What I found particularly interesting about Iron Giant is the clear
distinction between the role of the military and that of the civilian
bureaucrat, Mansley, who is clearly the driving force behind the paranoia.
In his voice-over commentary Bird remarked that some military men have
thanked him for making that distinction.
While I've found Iron Giant a bit lagging in spots, I think he got the
paranoia just right.
MB replies: Fashions in paranoia change. I'm reminded of those earlier films—Doctor Strangelove, Seven Days in May—whose paranoid characters were not civilians like Keith Mansley but military men like General Buck Turgidson.
Civilian or military, paranoia, like any other mental disease, is too easy an answer for a serious filmmaker. (I was fascinated, when I saw Strangelove for the first time in decades, by how bad a movie it now seemed.) How much more exciting, and how much funnier, a movie Bird might have made if he had set his movie in the present day and populated it with sane but baffled characters who were struggling to deal with the very strange reality of a huge—and, let's not forget, extremely dangerous—robot from outer space.
[Posted July 29, 2007]
From Ed Hooks, author of Acting
for Animators: Well, we can't both be right on this one. I think
The Iron Giant is a classic. I think that fifty years from
now, when they compile lists of the best American animated films
ever made, Iron Giant will be there. In short, I think
you are dead wrong and overly venomous in your assessment of the
Though I may never be able to prove it, and it may seem farfetched,
I have a hunch that Warner Brothers purposely buried the movie because
of its anti-gun, pacifist content. Several times in the movie, we
are told "guns kill." This is the polar opposite of the
NRA's hollow chant: "Guns don't kill, people kill."
The Iron Giant was released in 1999, when Time Warner was
negotiating marriage with AOL. The merger was formally announced
in January 2000. I have a strong feeling that execs somewhere up
the totem pole at WB screened this movie and decided they didn't
want to answer to the NRA or irate Southern conservative shareholders
when there were bigger fish to frynamely, the merger.
On its own merits, the theme of the movie has mostly to do with
the imperative of self-determination. This is a shamanistic message
and is a hell of a lot more useful to the tribe than whatever they
were saying in Shrek or The Emperor's New Groove.
Did you ever read the book on which the movie is based? It is interesting
to see what Bird et al added to the stew. The basic story was written
for the children of Sylvia Plath upon her death. Their father wrote
a tale about how one can make onself into whatever one wants to
be. It was intended to be hopeful, and I think he scored.
Re: Hogarth going out into the woods in pursuit of ....whatever
was out there that night ....I can recall when I was a small boy
in Hapeville, Georgia, a peacock got loose from the Atlanta zoo.
It was a huge and multi-colored bird, and it was flying all over
the place. There were bird sightings galore. I took my cork gunone
exactly like Hogarth'sand went "hunting" for the
bird. I found the damned thing in the woods behind my grandmother's
house. More correctly, the bird found me! It chased me, wings flapping
and with me screaming back toward my grandma's house. I thought
I was a goner for sure.
Even today, I remember that damned bird chasing me. It was one
of the scarier moments in my young life. I just knew in my heart
that he would peck my eyes out. My point is that a kid that age
will do pretty foolish things, like going into the woods with a
I think Brad Bird did not establish clearly enough the Red Menace
that was being thrust upon the public back then. If you look at
the movie again, you'll see a newspaper in Hogarth's house. Shortly
before he ventures into the woods that night, we get a glance at
the headline, which was one of those "Russians Are Sneaking
into the Country" things. I believe that Bird intended Hogarth
to be in pursuit of commies, not giants.
As for the acting, consider the scene in which the Giant's hand
is loose in Hogarth's house at dinner time. Hogarth prays over dinner,
using the prayer to distract his mother from seeing the hand that
is creeping through the living room. I recall that on the wall behind
the table was one of those old grandfather clocks with the slowly
swinging pendulums. The pendulum set a rhythm for the scene against
which Hogarth's flailing about stood in sharp juxtaposition. I found
it a very effective device and considered the acting in that scene
to be particularly strong.