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'Iron Giant': Shaggy Dogma

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 1999

  Movie Critic

'The Iron Giant'
Young Hogarth Hughes is befriended by "The Iron Giant." (Warner Bros.)

Brad Bird
Jennifer Aniston;
Christopher McDonald;
Harry Connick Jr.;
Cloris Leachman;
Vin Diesel
Running Time:
1 hour, 21 minutes
Features the threat of nuclear detonation and several bloodless war sequences
"The Iron Giant" is a fabulous animated feature, funny, touching, vivid and, best of all, humane. I hated it.

It's brilliantly animated, and like the masterpieces of its genre it transcends age groupings. Children will love it and adults will be transfixed by its cleverness and its deft satire. Still, I hated it.

And, although I hated it, I enjoyed it very much. You will probably enjoy it, even if you hate it, too.

The movie is set in 1957, in that immediate post-Sputnik panic, when it appeared that we were behind the Russkies and had to catch up. One night in upstate Maine – this was before the giant alligators of "Lake Placid" got there – a fireball crashes into the sea and the one survivor of a fishing boat sunk by the splash claims that it was a spaceship!

Later that same week, cute Hogarth, the son of the perky diner waitress, is wandering around, curious about a weird phenomenon: Something has been biting chunks out of tractors. Aliens or commies? Well, the giant footsteps in the mud suggest the presence of a 100-foot-high robot. Hmmmm. Hogarth bumbles into the woods exactly when a 100-foot-high robot is trying to eat the local power station and is about to be electrocuted for his hungers. The boy doesn't run screaming in fear – as would any kid in a '50s movie – but instead takes pity on the screaming giant and locates the power station's helpfully placed OFF switch, thereby saving the big guy's life.

What happens next is sort of like a Lassie movie with a 100-foot-high robot with nuclear weapons in its arms in the role of the collie. Boy and 'bot gambol through the woods, developing a touching relationship. They "bond." Boy is not stupid; he understands that some people might be made anxious by the presence of the 100-foot robot that eats cars for lunch. He helps 'bot hide by taking him to the junkyard – this would be a Horn & Hardart for a giant metal-eating robot, no? – which is run by the local beatnik artist. Meanwhile, his perky mom is trying to figure out what to do and a manly FBI agent, just like the one James Arness played in "Them," arrives to investigate.

Technically, "The Iron Giant" is superb. Brilliantly colored, it meshes computer-animated imagery (the robot and most of the war machines) with the more fluent and naturalistic stylings of the old Disney house style. It's "Bambi" with robots. The dialogue is sprightly and engaging and the off-screen actors – particularly Eli Marienthal as Hogarth, the boy, and Jennifer Aniston as his perky mom – are terrific.

But at a certain point "The Iron Giant," without missing a beat in charm or artistry, skews off into TULWC. And that would be The Usual Left-Wing Crap. I suppose the movies it is parodying would be considered TURWC, but they were made in the middle of the Cold War. This one was made in the toasty-warm safety of our victory in that war.

The artistic conceit of "The Iron Giant" is to invert the stereotypes of the '50s invasion-from-space movie, with its paranoid, xenophobic overtones and anti-communist metaphoric structure. Think of it as "The War of the Worlds" or "The Thing" as directed by a member of the Hollywood 10. As I say, TULWC.

Thus the FBI agent turns out to be a treacherous rat, not a hero; it's the beatnik who gets the girl (Mom) in the end, while the FBI guy runs away like a sniveling craven monster. When the authorities arrive, it's the usual liberal fantasy of the military, an agglomeration of trigger-happy, destruction-crazed yahoos willing to blow away the gentle giant just because he has A-bombs up his size 347 sleeves. Those rats! If they showed him love, this wouldn't have to happen.

Okay, you're saying: Who wrote this review, "Strangelove's" Gen. Buck Turgidson? Still, the movie – as beautifully drawn, as sleek and engaging as it is – has the annoyance of incredible smugness. It is, one could say, blinded by the hindsight. How stupid the '50s seem from our enlightened age, yet how utterly easy and cheap it is to affect superiority to that decade, particularly when nowhere in the piece does it acknowledge the existence of an evil empire busily nurturing spies and building H-bombs and threatening to bury us after burying millions of its own. This movie is set in '57, but nobody affiliated with it appears aware of what happened in '56, in Hungary. Yes, I suppose the makers of "The Iron Giant" are morally superior to the FBI, CIA, USAF and USN and USA agents, soldiers and officers who fought the Cold War, but it's easy to be superior when your dads have already beaten all your enemies.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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