I originally saw The Iron Giant this past summer, in a Saturday afternoon matinee (I went with a 5-year-old friend). It was, I think, the most enjoyable time I’ve spent in theater that was packed with youngsters. They were enrapt by the metal mammoth on the screen, not frightened, as you might expect. They seemed to think the big robot was cute. At one tense moment early in the film, in fact, when the robot is lying on the ground, temporarily out of commission, the little girl sitting on her father’s lap next to me cried out, very concernedly, “Are you okay, Iron Giant?”
Cue adult laughter. But, hey, we were worried too.
Like all great animated films, The Iron Giant is at least as enthralling to grownups as it is to their kids. This one is an instant classic. In a way, I’m sorry there are no “no one understands me” and “oh no this is our darkest hour” songs here, because listening to a soundtrack over and over would be a way to relive the movie — the way I do with the Disney greats — again and again. (I’ll have to settle for Pete Townsend’s The Iron Man CD, which is also based on the children’s book by Ted Hughes and can sort of serve as a soundtrack to the film. Townsend, in fact, executive produced The Iron Giant.)
The scene is Rockwell, Maine — the name is meant to evoke Norman Rockwell, small-town, all-American America — in October 1957. Sputnik, zooming by overhead every 90 minutes (this would make a great double feature with October Sky), is only heightening cold war fears and giving everyone flying-saucer jitters. So when a local fisherman starts raving over the strange things he witnessed out on the ocean — was it a UFO or the Russians up to something? — the whole town is on alert.
Enter Hogarth Hughes (the voice of Eli Marienthal). An excitable, dreamy child with an active imagination, he’s exactly the kind of kid who’d be lonely and misunderstood in a small town. His single, waitress mom (the voice of Jennifer Aniston: Office Space) won’t let him have a pet, but he adopts one anyway: the giant metal robot (the voice of Vin Diesel: Saving Private Ryan), recently arrived from outer space, who’s been unwittingly spooking the town. Hogarth is the mouse, so to speak, that pulls the thorn from the lion’s paw, and he and the robot become fast friends. Hogarth is overjoyed: “My own giant robot — I’m the luckiest kid in America!”
That, I’m sure, is part of the appeal of The Iron Giant to little kids who should by all rights be terrified by it: the robot is under little Hogarth’s command. As with everything from the current Pokémon craze to the way that kids absorb arcane trivia about every breed of dinosaur, kids love the idea that something large and/or powerful is under their control — in the same way that the adults around them are not. And this attitude — this desire to control something scary — makes even more sense in Hogarth’s case, for the frightening specter the Bomb looms large and menacing over his world in a way that it no longer does for kids today. While he watches filmstrips at school about “ATOMIC HOLOCAUST” — offering the advice to “duck and cover” — Hogarth makes happy drawings of himself and the giant playing together.
Hogarth’s happiness cannot last, of course. Though he does his best to hide the robot — with the help of his friend Dean McCoppin (the voice of Harry Connick Jr.), beatnik junkman and artist — the authorities are soon on the case. Kent Mansley (the voice of Christopher McDonald: The Faculty), an agent with the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomena — think Mulder and Scully rolled into one — shows up to investigate the reports of weird happenings and does nothing to alleviate local anxiety about Communists and “ATOMIC HOLOCAUST” with his self-important asides about “national security.” When the Iron Giant is finally uncovered for all the town to see, Mansley’s assessment is: “We didn’t built it so that’s reason enough to assume the worst.”
The finale, in which the robot must defend itself against an army attack, may be a wee bit intense for youngsters — the Iron Giant does not like to be shot at — but a nightmare or two may be worth the simple, positive, and profound messages the film offers: Friendship comes with both rewards and responsibilities. Don’t give in to paranoia. Accept or at least be tolerant of nonconformity. Use your powers for good, never for evil. Be yourself.
And hey, I bawled my eyes out at the genuinely moving ending, so there’s some fun here for grownups, too.