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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 film.

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 fry—namely, 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 gun—one exactly like Hogarth's—and 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 cork gun.

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.

[Posted 2003]