The great thing about Warner Bros. animated features is that they haven't lost touch with their cartoony roots.
The studio's recent releases in the hand-drawn genre, like "Cats Don't Dance" and "Quest for Camelot," have celebrated the simpler, wide-eyed aspects of the art form while Disney and its more direct competitors (Fox's "Anastasia," for instance) edge toward life-like realism.
But until now Warner's hasn't had a serious contender in the animation wars.
Enter "The Iron Giant," the most inventive, captivating and cleverly drawn, the most extraordinary -- the coolest -- Hollywood cartoon since the genre was revived 10 years ago.
The story of a metal-munching, 100-foot robot that falls to Earth during the fearful 1950s and finds himself hunted by a pointy-jawed, paranoid, paranormal investigator in the employ of the War Department, this is the best kind of kids' movie -- a simple morality tale set against a fun, exciting sci-fi adventure.
The Giant -- a fantastically rendered, post-war comic book amalgam of gears and armor plating -- is something of an innocent, having lost his memory in his crash-landing off the coast of Maine. Confused and hungry, he tries to snack on the steel in a power station and is saved from electrocution by a boy named Hogarth who hides the mighty metal man at a local scrap yard ("Wow! My own giant robot!") and spends his afternoons teaching him the finer points of humanity.
While it may not be subtle with the social message fodder ("Guns kill," Hogarth explains point-blank), "The Iron Giant" is so joyfully entertaining, visually stylish, intelligent and even poignant, that a little heavy-handedness can be forgiven as a friendship forms between Hogarth and the Giant, who follows him around like a treetop-tall lost puppy.
Adapted (from Ted Hughes' bedtime story) and directed by Brad Bird, who was working with Disney animators as early as age 14, the story spoofs the Red scare culture of America in the 1950s, even offering up a mock Civil Defense film at Hogarth's school, showing kids hiding under desks and surviving a nuclear holocaust with chipper little smiles on their faces.
This sense of humor, of course, extends to laughs that will mean a lot more to kids as well. When the hawkish, Ward Cleaver-looking government man tries to buddy up to Hogarth in a soda shop (calling him "sport," "buckaroo," "tiger," "champ," "slugger," etc.), hoping to be lead to the Giant, the boy outsmarts him by sprinkling chocolate laxative on the man's sundae. He spends the next reel making screwed-up faces and desperately seeking restrooms.
Even funnier: Hogarth takes the Giant swimming and teaches him to do a cannonball, creating a colossal wall of water that washes fish and forest animals across the screen.
The main thrust of the movie is a great adventure, and there's no mistaking that "The Iron Giant" is boys' fare. There are no handsome princes here. But even so, it has emotional moments that sneak up on you, especially toward the end when the Giant's dormant defensive systems kick in and he transforms into a "War of the Worlds"-inspired, walking arsenal. That's when Hogarth risks his life to remind the metal monster that he doesn't have to be a gun -- he is what he chooses to be.
The last act of "The Iron Giant" comes on a bit abruptly and feels somewhat rushed and gimmicky -- and although it eventually arrives at a feel-good ending (by way of a wonderful homage to Superman), it taps some seriously stressful, heartbreaking scenes as the robot is under attack.
But even if they cry a tad, little kids will adore every moment of "The Iron Giant." So will big kids, like me. I've already seen it twice.
If Warners can continue to produce animated features this handsome and memorable without losing their soul to the ogre of cartoon realism, they may finally be the studio that gives Disney a run for its money.
Run time: 86 mins
In Theaters: Friday 6th August 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $23.2M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros. Animation
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Fresh: 126 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.9 / 10
Director: Brad Bird
Starring: Jennifer Aniston as Annie Hughes (voice), Harry Connick Jr. as Dean McCoppin (voice), Vin Diesel as The Iron Giant (voice), Cloris Leachman as Mrs. Lynley Tensedge (voice), James Gammon as Foreman Marv Loach / Floyd Turbeaux (voice), Christopher McDonald as Kent Mansley (voice), John Mahoney as General Rogard (voice), Eli Marienthal as Hogarth Hughes (voice), M. Emmet Walsh as Earl Stutz (voice), Jack Angel as Additional Voices, Bob Bergen as Additional Voices, Mary Kay Bergman as Additional Voices, Michael Bird as Additional Voices, Devon Cole Borisoff as Additional Voices, Rodger Bumpass as Additional Voices
Also starring: Chrostpher McDonald
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