Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Iron Giant

It's sort of appropriate that I watched The Iron Giant in the middle of my Spielberg marathon, because the E.T. parallels are almost impossible to miss.  A visitor from space.  A young, lonely, impressionable boy.  A single mother.  A bunch of government types who are tracking the creature.  The Iron Giant, Brad Bird's directorial debut, owes a significant debt to Spielberg's (in my opinion) magnum opus about loneliness, and friendship in unexpected places.

After the titular Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel, of all people, who proves to be the stand-out member of the cast) crash-lands in rural Maine in 1957, young, curious Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal, who played the younger Stifler brother in the first two American Pie movies) befriends the alien visitor.  In order to hide the Giant first from his mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston) and later from a humorless G-Man named Kent Mansley who is consumed by Cold War-era paranoia about the Giant's provenance (Christopher McDonald), he enlists the help of a local beatnik, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) who owns a metal junkyard which provides the Giant with the sustenance he needs to stay alive.  But Mansley relentlessly stays on the trail of the Giant, and after discovering incontrovertible proof of his existence, calls in the army led by General Rogard (John Mahoney) to destroy the visitor.  Mansley is just as desperate to convince everyone of the Giant's malign intentions as Hogarth is to convince them that the Giant poses no danger, and Hogarth's attempts to save the Giant from the army are complicated by the fact that the Giant is more than he seems at first blush.

The thing, in my mind, that sets the two films apart is the cultural milieu in which they are set.  Spielberg set his alien visitor/coming-of-age story in a place that isn't really a place, but an Anytown-type simulacrum of his own suburban childhood that can (and was designed to) stand in for any time, and any suburban place, in post-WWII America.  The culture that Elliot and his siblings (and friends) consume is a mish-mash of signifiers - an old rock song here, a game of Dungeons and Dragons there.  The Iron Giant, in comparison, is very clear about the time frame in which it is set, 1957 (right after the launch of Sputnik), and this period infuses the film all the way through.  Mansley is literally terrified of the Giant as a Communist plot to bring about nuclear annihilation; on a smaller scale, Hogarth's class watches a version of one of those "Duck and Cover!" videos from the 50's, and Hogarth's taste in comics runs towards the cosmic, the sort of half-optimistic/half-pessimistic sci-fi fantasias that were born out of the clash of the dawn of the Space Age with the knowledge that humanity was constantly near the brink of wiping itself out.  Hogarth reads a comic called Atomo, whose titular villain bears a striking resemblance to the Giant - when Hogarth points this out, the Giant balks at the comparison, and says he prefers to be Superman instead.  Bird's fondness for the sci-fi culture of the 50's comes across throughout, and the decision to make the film a period piece ironically serves to augment the film's timeless quality.

The Iron Giant owes a debt to E.T., but it's also in the same class as E.T. in the amount of genuine emotion it wrings out of its story, and that is the highest praise I can give the film.  It goes without saying that the film never talks down to its intended audience - this movie was made before the increasingly execrable Shrek franchise turned the art of filmmaking for children into a game of reference one-upsmanship designed to appeal exclusively to the parents forced to take their children to see the film, leaving the actual audience of children nothing but to wallow in the shallowest smorgasbord of scatalogical jokes that the filmmakers seemingly threw in as an afterthought.  Of course, it's worth noting that the American public roundly rejected the Iron Giant when it came out in theaters, so the suggestion that Hollywood is simply giving people what they want is probably accurate.  But when a smart, sweet, heartbreaking movie like this comes along, it's worth celebrating its simple existence.  A

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