RIOTOUSLY enough, the most striking characteristic of Brad Bird's animated feature, "The Iron Giant," is its heavy-handedness.
The clunky parable was loosely -- very loosely, although it does feature a metal giant -- based on the 1968 children's book of the same name by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. The tale was also the basis for Pete Townshend's lamentable 1989 concept album, "The Iron Man," and the musician serves as the film's executive producer.
Bird, whose credits include work on hip TV animation like "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," sets Hughes's story in America at the height of the Cold War. (Bird is credited with the "screen story," Tim McCanlies with the screenplay itself.) Sputnik, a hammer and sickle emblazoned on its side, floats through space in the film's opening scene.
The time is 1957, the place the small, coastal town of Rockwell, (get it?) Maine. When a local fisherman recounts watching a huge, iron man fall from the sky, nobody believes him except 9-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal), because he's badly in need of a friend, and local beatnik Dean McCoppen (voiced by Harry Connick Jr.), because "Somebody has to stand up for the loonies."
Young Hogarth meets and befriends the childlike giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) after the latter, who has an insatiable appetite for metal and a limited understanding of electricity, makes a disastrous attempt to eat a power station. It's not long before her son's strange behavior arouses the suspicions of Hogarth's peppy single mom (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) and the large bites taken from area automobiles arouse those of Kent Mansley (voiced by Christopher McDonald), an agent from "B.U.P." -- the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomena.
Many of the film's references are more sophisticated than is usual in animated children's fare. Hogarth's elementary school class, for example, watches a surprisingly authentic-looking "Duck and Cover" filmstrip, while Dean reads Kerouac, drinks black coffee and listens to jazz. Other flourishes, however, are more traditional: At one point, Hogarth laces the patronizing federal agent's ice cream sundae with a laxative, setting in motion a chain of, um, events that continues throughout the film.
Who knew we'd ever miss the intervals of song in Disney's animated musicals?
The movie hammers home its messages -- hard. Conformity is uncool. Distrust the government. Patriotism can be a cloak for self-interest. But the filmmakers undercut such countercultural sentiments by suggesting that Hogarth needs a man in his life (and, by extension, that his mother needs one in hers) in order to be happy. It's anti-nuclear only in the atomic sense.
While Hogarth is being besieged by surrogate-father figures, the hapless giant is discovering that he has the capacity for destruction. But, as the little boy explains, "You don't have to be a gun." We can't tell you what he decides, but we can tell you that if this is an allegory for pacifism, it backfires spectacularly. When, near the end of the film, the animators stage a full-scale melee complete with tanks, warships and outlandish, futuristic weaponry, the kids in the theater let out a collective whoop.
So much for moralizing.
THE IRON GIANT (PG, 81 minutes) -- Contains potty jokes and a graphic hunting scene. Area theaters.