It’s a whole new year, homies! I want to kick this one off with something a little different. Looking back at my last five reviews, three of them star established franchise monsters (my personal
unholy trinity of Godzilla, King Kong, and Gamera), four were made in Japan, three were made in the glory days of the 1960s monster boom, and four were high-flying monster-mashing battle royales.
For real, at the rate I write these, I could probably review nothing but 1960s Japanese kaiju films and be flush with content for years. I would also be flush with fun, because those are the best movies in the universe. BUT that’s not the sole point of MONSTERS CONQUER THE WORLD! I like to sweep the greater giant monster moviescape and yak about shit from different regions and time periods. In addition to perusing Japan’s kaiju collection, I’ve also sampled monster fare from the good ol’ US of A, jolly old England, and even
mother-fucking real-life Mordor North Korea! So this month I’m reviewing another really unique entry in the colossal creature canon: The Iron Giant. It’s an American movie from 1999 that focuses more on heartwarming, unusual friendships than city-shattering mayhem. It’s a little more E.T. than Godzilla. And even weirder: it’s animated!
So grab your vintage Superman comics, chew on some scrap metal, and get ready to duck and cover with the Iron Giant!
First, here’s the trailer. It hits all the important points and sells us on a sweet, fun, and highly unusual family adventure movie. It also does a good job of showing us that this movie is fucking beautiful.
Everything is a joy to look at: the characters, the color palette, the backdrops, the animation. Even if this movie was a big sweaty rat anus I’d have watched it at least once or twice because I love cartoons, and this bad bitch is a visual milestone in cartoonery. Thankfully the movie’s plot and characters are as entertaining and charming as the visuals, and the score by Michael Kamen helps it all along too. My favorite bits are “Eye of the Storm“, “Trance-former“, and “No Following.” Eye of the Storm captures the movie’s overall spirit: a mix of whimsy, mystery, and suspense. Trance-Former channels the Giant’s repressed inner rage monster, and is essentially an orchestra going full-tilt B-movie batshit. It’s great. No Following is The Iron Giant’s emotional crescendo and drives home the most powerful scene in the movie (keep it together Matt, Jesus). You can listen to a sweet suite of the entire score here.
So yeah, let’s get into it! Literally from frame one you can see this movie is going to be a little different, and already indicates some of the battles director Brad Bird had with Warner Bros. executives. Here’s what the movie kicks off with:
And if you’ve seen a WB family film, you might have guessed what the execs wanted:
This is actually super minor compared to what else Bird and co. had to fight for. The executives were pushing hard for the movie to be set in present day (instead of the idyllic/red scare-paranoid 50s), feature a hip-hop soundtrack, and no shit, literally, a cool dog sidekick.
With the behind-the-scenes battles against synergizing suits won, the movie gets to proceed as intended. The POV zooms in from space, following a meteor past the beeping Sputnick, down to our stormy, beautifully rendered home planet below.
Like so many of the best giant monster movies, our titular titanium titan makes his debut in a churning, tempestuous sea. As is tradition, the Giant is first spotted only by a schlubby fisherman who probably smells like your one cool uncle that your mom is always mad at.
Earl’s encounter with the Giant is awesome and spooky; Earl thinks he’s found the local lighthouse, right up until it turns revealing two eerie beams of light instead of one familiar beacon. For all its heartwarming friendship and bittersweet loss, this movie never really loses sight of the fact that if a gigantic metal dude was lurking in the dark edges of your neighborhood it would be fucking scary.
But before Earl gets a chance to regale his colleagues with tales of sea-faring Communist/Martian murderbots, we meet our real protagonist, Hogarth Hughes, and his sleepy Maine hometown of Rockwell. It’s an autumnal, picturesque fishing town that lives up to its namesake, and Hogarth is a fun-loving, typical 50s kid who may or may not live up to his namesake, because what the fuck is a Hogarth.
Hogarth rides his suspiciously familiar-looking bike to go visit his mom at work in the local diner. This scene is like lightning-round character establishment, but it’s funny and entertaining so you don’t even notice. First, Earl’s story gets (mostly) wrapped up. He tells his schlubby, cool uncle-smelling buddies about what he saw, and they respond basically by saying “Giant Martian and/or Russian military android?! Haha! More like you suffer from crippling, life-ruining alcoholism! Your perceived weakness nourishes our shitty bodies with soul-affirming laughter! FUCK YOU EARL, YOU BOOZY PUNK-BITCH. FUCK. YOU.“
Meanwhile, Hogarth, in classic 50s kid fashion is trying to convince his hard-working single mom (Jennifer Aniston) to let him keep the squirrel he caught as a pet. She’s willing to humor him, but the squirrel has escaped into the diner somewhere, forcing Hogarth to comically and shittily stop this debacle before it starts. While searching for the errant rodent, he meets local artist/beatnik/cool guy Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), because why would you not name your cool 50s guy Dean.
After backing up Earl’s wild story (“if we don’t stick up for the kooks, who will?”) Dean then flips a shit because he has unwittingly acquired a pant-ful of angry, scared squirrel. Dean releases the animal with a quick Blazing Saddles throw-back. With the whole squirrel thing shot to shit, Hogarth’s surprisingly chill mom lets him know she has to work a double today, and not to stay up all night watching trashy horror movies and eating junk-food. Hogarth is a red-blooded American kid after my own heart, so naturally we smash cut to him doing all the things.
It’s all fun and twinkies and rubber monsters and grab-ass until the TV mysteriously goes out. Hogarth goes to fix the TV antenna… except it’s just fucking gone. There’s a suspicious trail of destruction leading into the deep, dark woods. Naturally Hogarth, jacked up on processed sugar and b-movie schlock, goes to investigate.
The darkened forest, filled with shredded trees and torn up earth, constitutes a clever, down-to-earth example of one of my favorite giant monster movie tropes: the hero(es) delving into a strange, monsterified environment. It’s not as exotic as King Kong‘s Skull Island or as bizarre as Mothra‘s radioactive jungle, but it’s just about as eerie and a lot closer to home.
Hogarth finally catches up with the Giant at an ominous, glowing power station deep in the woods. The giant has a mad case of massive metal munchies, so he stomps right past Hogarth, smashing his BB gun on the way to chow on the electrical towers. It must be the metal equivalent to sweet and salty, because the Giant just goes to town on that mess. So much so he accidentally grabs a bunch of live wires and fries the shit out of himself.
With an enormous metal man thrashing around a power station in uncontrollable agony, Hogarth understandably decides to peace out. As he’s bailing though, Hogarth realizes that the Giant isn’t screaming in rage, but confused pain.
Hogarth’s a great kid so he stops and tries to suss out something he can do to save the screaming, electrified colossus. All the while Hog’s mom (I’m done typing out Hogarth) is home from work and trying not to freak out because her fucking kid is gone without a trace.
So naturally she starts bombing around backroads in her truck desperately trying to track down her goofy-ass kid. Before she catches up with Hog though, he manages to shut down the power station, releasing the Giant! Hooray! Hog meets up with his mom, and in a refreshing move that goes against the cliches that come with a story like this, he immediately and excitedly tries to tell her everything. Unsurprisingly she is not super open to hearing about giant mechano-men after working a double and having to comb the woods in the middle of the night for her only child. As they head home, the Giant once again creeps on them from afar.
Hog’s thoughts at school the next day naturally linger on the Giant, and the other douchey kids all speculate on what the hell is going on in their little town. If kids talking about needing to bomb (imagined) communist forces into oblivion didn’t evoke enough vintage Cold War panic for you, their teacher shows them a film strip about how to survive an “ATOMIC HOLOCAUST” by hiding under their desks.
The best/funniest/creepiest part of Iron Giant’s filmstrip is that it’s not that far off from what we actually showed kids back in the day. Swap the gopher with a turtle and you pretty much have the real thing:
While Hog’s busy at school learning all the best ducking techniques and covering stratagems, we meet Lieutenant Kent Mansley.
Kent is basically old-school, one-man X-Files, checking up on weird shit for the government. The big difference is that The X-Files’ Mulder passionately investigates the paranormal, looking for truth in the darkest, strangest corners of the world, whereas Kent here got stuffed into a bullshit busywork program to keep him from screwing up anything important. Of course, he’d be the last person to own up to that, and instead parades around Rockwell as a smug doucher convinced that he’s the only thing standing between us and certain Commie/Martian-fueled devastation.
He is perfectly voiced by Shooter McGavin himself, Christopher McDonald. When he arrives in Rockwell, he condescends to the locals that he’ll jot down some notes and be on his way, convinced that nothing could really be going on here. Until he comes back to his car and finds it like this:
Mansley also finds Hogarth’s mashed-up BB gun, and he rushes off to set up a meeting with local officials, just missing Hogarth, who traipses back into the woods after school to try and meet up with the Giant again. After zonking out for a while, Hog wakes up to find the Giant has somehow managed to sneak up on him.
Hog and the Giant bond instantly. The Giant remembers that Hog saved him, and Hog is able to teach him a few words. It’s every dorky kid’s dream come true, until the Giant insists on following Hog home… and then getting hit by a train because he’s a kind of a big sweet dumb-ass. The end. Roll credits.
…Just playin’. The Giant really does get hit by a train though! Like the diner scene earlier, this bit actually sets up a bunch of different things at once. The Giant of course survives the wreck, but goes to pieces. Just like the Wolfman in Monster Squad, we find out that the Giant can pull his severed parts back together and reattach them. This idea doesn’t pay off until the very end, but I’m glad they set it up in advance. More immediately though, it reinforces how naive the Giant is and how much he needs Hogarth’s help figuring out the world. And it sets up a pretty fuckin’ funny extended gag where the Giant’s severed hand gets lost, wanders into the house during dinner, and Hogarth has to hide it from his Mom and that shit-heel Kent Mansley.
It’s great little scene that packs in a bunch of inspired slapstick, wacky coincidences, and near-misses. In the space of a couple minutes, Hogarth:
- Turns saying grace before dinner into a Southern Baptist-style rant against Satan.
- Accidentally destroys the spice rack with the flick of a penny.
- Pretends to blast gnarly turd in front of his mom and Kent.
Once things calm down, Hogarth sneaks back out to the barn where he’s stashed the Giant to read him some bedtime stories. Hogarth shows the Giant some of the selections he’s brought, and cooly enough they’re all real (except Atomo), period-appropriate magazines and comics: Mad, The Spirit, Boy’s Life, and the two thematically important ones: Superman and Atomo. Hogarth tells the Giant that Superman is hot shit and a hero, just like the Giant. The Giant digs this idea, but is very aware that the villainous robot Atomo looks a hell of a lot more like himself than Superman does.
There’s no time for an existential crisis though, because the Giant is starving. The Giant picks up Hogarth and they sneak off through the woods. Hogarth gets an amazing view of his hometown, and we get some beautiful shots of them exploring the world while everyone else sleeps. After a narrowly-avoided run-in with a car, they hit the jackpot: the local junkyard.
It turns out the scrapyard is owned by local cool guy Dean, who splits his time between selling junk and making cool sculptures out of it. Hogarth meets up with him to try and ease him into the whole “please hide/feed my giant space-bot” thing.
Hogarth does eventually manage to convince Dean to keep the Giant for one night. Hog gets home just as the sun comes out, and if that didn’t suck enough, he finds out that that chode Kent Mansley is renting out their spare room. UGH. This fucking guy. Mansley is desperately, obviously, creepily, and hilariously hanging around Hogarth, trying to get more information about the Giant.
Hog’s well-meaning Mom convinces him to show Mansley around town. Hogarth, ever the sharp-witted little monster, spikes Mansley’s milk shake with ex-lax, allowing him to escape the pooping patriot. While Hog peaces out to go goof around with Dean and the Giant, we get a whole montage of Mansley searching for clues… and places to shit.
In addition to finding a couple dozen suitable places to dook out, Mansley also finds Hogarth’s abandoned camera, complete with pictures of Hog pally-pallying around with the Giant. Oh shit. Meanwhile, Hogarth and the Giant have wandered into the woods. They spot a deer, and the Giant’s close encounter with it is gorgeous.
But a twig snaps, scaring the deer. It runs off and gets shot by hunters. Im not saying the Iron Giant caused that scene in Bambi, but the Iron Giant caused that scene in Bambi.
All joking aside, it’s one of the most powerful bits in the movie, and it sets up a couple things. When the hunters see the Giant, they (understandably) just drop their guns and fucking sprint out of there. The Giant wigs out a for a minute at the guns. His eyes go narrow and red. FOREBODE. Before we can see what that means, Hog snaps him out of it and has a talk with him about death. He explains that it’s bad to kill, but not bad to die, souls don’t die, and that the Giant he has a soul too. It’s awesome. Hogarth is a high-strung dweeb, but he’s also really level-headed and has a super healthy and mature attitude about mortality. It’s… not something I expect out of an animated family movie, but it’s refreshing anyway. The Giant seems able to process these deep ideas, and is ultimately comforted by the idea of souls, and sprawls out under the stars at the junkyard, quietly pondering life and death.
Hog goes home, feeling pretty cool about life… until Mansley corners him, locks him in the barn, shines a light in his face and interrogates him about the Giant.
Hogarth stands strong. What the hell can a government agent even really do to an American kid (pre-Patriot Act, at least)? Then we find out exactly what: Mansley can make the case to the right people that Hogarth’s mom is unfit, and have Hogarth taken away. I was kind of joking about him being a douche-weasel earlier, but Mansley really is a fucking creep. He’ll get worse later. Hogarth of course confesses, and Mansley immediately confirms that he’ll just keep getting shittier by fucking chloroforming Hogarth.
When Hogarth comes around, he hears Mansley talking on the phone to top brass in the military; they’re coming tomorrow. Mansley ends the call and tells Hogarth he’s going to watch him all night, so there’s no point in trying run off and warn the Giant.
Except Mansley, being the shriveled up little baby penis he is, fell asleep! Who knows what shenanigans our boy Hog got up to while Mansley dreamed about being able to afford name-brand rouge? We’ll find out soon enough, because Mansley’s boss (a multi-star general played by Frasier’s Dad) and a whole platoon of army dudes have showed up, demanding to see the Giant. Mansley forces Hogarth and his mom to come along, and they all roadtrip to Dean’s scrapyard.
With the Giant disguised as one of Dean’s scrap-sculptures (scraptures?) Mansley gets satisfyingly reamed out by his boss, and the army gets ready to convoy home. Hogarth, being an impulsive kid decides he and the Giant should get back to playing around as soon as the army is out of the driveway. This is actually fine… until Hogarth pulls a toy zapper gun and points it at the Giant.
We finally see what the deer scene was hinting at: if you point a gun (or a reasonable facsimile of a gun) at the Giant, he involuntarily goes into a self-defensive murder-mode. Dean is just barely able to shove Hogarth out of harms’ way when the Giant lets loose a stream of hot atomic death. Dean then demonstrates he has monsterballs by screaming down the 100 ft. tall murderbot. The Giant is super distraught by all of this, and runs off. Hogarth runs after him, and Dean sees the toy gun Hogarth left behind. Dean realizes the Giant was just spooked by the gun, and offers to give Hog a ride on his motorcycle to help track down the Giant. Naturally, we are treated to SNOW OF SADNESS.
Some goobery astronomy kids in town spot the Giant off in the distance with their telescope, and nearly fall off a roof in the process. On a psychic, subconscious level, Hogarth must be happy to know there are bigger nerds than him in Rockwell. More importantly though, the Giant gets his chance to fucking prove that he’s Superman, sprinting to their rescue and saving them from splattering kid-guts across main street. The townspeople see everything, and basically start shitting bricks of awe and respect. It’s pretty fucking cool to be Superman.
Of course, Mansley and the Army spot the 100 ft tall robot behind them, and all pull u-turns accordingly. When Hogarth and Dean arrive on the scene, the Giant proudly and defiantly tells Dean “I am not a gun.” It’s a great moment, surely everything will be fine now, right?
As the Giant is having his moment, and the townspeople are all like “Yeah this guy seems pretty cool,” the army shoots him in the fucking back like a bunch of punk-ass bitches. The upside is that it kicks off the biggest, coolest (and only?) action setpiece in the movie. Fearing for Hogarth’s safety, the Giant scoops him up and encloses him in his big protective metal fingers, and sprints the hell out of town. Dean rushes over to Mansley and explains that they have to hold their fire: the Giant has Hogarth, and the Giant only attacks defensively. Rather than respond accordingly, Mansley crosses the moral event horizon and tells the general that the Giant has killed Hogarth.
Unsurprisingly the army is like “Well fuck this thing then,” and scrambles a squadron of era-appropriate fighter jets. The Giant and Hog dodge strafing fire from jets as best they can, before tumbling down a snowy cliff.
We get one of the most iconic images in the movie as the Giant and Hogarth fly up the side of the cliff, right in front of Hog’s astonished Mom. They lift off into the stratosphere, and it is baller as hell. The Giant full-on Supermans up here, and the squadron of jets return to blast the Giant out of the sky. The Giant feels his murder programming kicking back in, and fights like hell to suppress his deep-seated, violent instincts. “NO,” he calls out. It’s awesome.
In taking the path of non-violence, the Giant is left wide open to get hammered with their missiles. The Giant and Hog plummet out of the sky, and the Giant does everything he can to keep him safe on the way down.
The kid’s actually okay, but the Giant doesn’t know how to check for a pulse, so he’s feeling pretty not rad. Then the army comes along and tenderly comforts the grieving Giant.
And this is it. They finally pushed the Giant off the deep end. The Giant gives in to his repressed murder-programming: he sprouts an array of bizarre alien super-weapons and goes absolutely apeshit on everything even vaguely military-shaped in a 10-mile radius.
While the Giant goes Jason Voorhees on the army, Hog’s Mom and Dean find him and he wakes up. Meanwhile, Mansley suggests they nuke the Giant. The general, cooly enough, is abso-fucking-lutely incredulous. “You scare me Mansley,” the general says, and Mansley sort of back-pedals and says they should lure it out to sea and nuke it there. He has a small part, but the General is one of the coolest characters in the film. Plenty of stories like this are content to just throw in a 2-dimensional trigger-happy murder-maniac, but despite looking scary and being a hard-ass, The Iron Giant’s general is one of the most rational, level-headed people in the entire movie. He’s competent and reasonable, making him a perfect foil to Mansley’s shrill paranoia and dip-shittery.
Hogarth and co. arrive in town, and Hog runs past everyone to try and talk the Giant down from his fucking killing spree. In a movie already packed with potent imagery, this moment gives us two more incredibly powerful shots:
Damn. Hogarth pleads with the marauding mech, “You don’t have to be a gun! You are what you choose to be!” And then it all comes rushing back to the Giant. He powers down his bizzarro plasma rifles and laser cannons, and starts calming down. Dean gets a second to explain the Giant to General Rogard personally… which gives that shitting fuck Mansley a chance to steal a walkie-talkie and shriek the order to “launch the missile now!”
They fucking do it! They launch a missile at an American town full of civilians, and the film gives us a moment to really soak in the dread of impending nuclear annihilation. Shit is grim. And in a way it doesn’t really get less grim when the Giant steps up and does what he knows Superman would do.
Hogarth naturally is heartbroken, but the rest of the people back in Rockwell cheer as the nuke detonates harmlessly in near-orbit, and General Rogard tells his men to pack it in. “Let’s go home,” he says, but you can tell he means, “Well this whole thing sucked shit and I feel like garbage, time to go drink all the whiskey.”
The story skips forward a few months: Rockwell’s town square features a memorial to the Giant sculpted by Dean, he and Hog’s Mom definitely have some kind of thing going, and Hog finally has (human) friends. Hog gets a package from General Rogard, the only piece of the Giant ever recovered. Hogarth takes it up to his room with him as he goes to bed, only to be woken up by the sound of it plinking against the window… which means the Giant’s alive! Hog lets the big screw roll out the window and off into the darkness. We skip to Iceland, and see the Giant is slowly but surely reconstituting in peaceful solitude.
So that’s The Iron Giant! It’s a bittersweet rollercoaster that perfectly balances super-solid all-ages comedy and intense emotional themes. It’s a really unique movie, so it seems like it would be a wholly original creation, right? Wrong (sort of)! It’s actually loosely based on a 1968 novel by Ted Hughes called “The Iron Man,” (no relation to Tony Stark), as well as the 1989 rock opera adaptation by The Who’s Pete Townshend.
So how faithful an adaptation is The Iron Giant? Well, The Iron Giant is about a huge, mysterious, metal-eating automaton who befriends a little boy before dealing with paranoia and the military-industrial complex in Cold War America, while The Iron Man is about a huge, mysterious, metal-eating automaton who befriends a little boy before dealing with a “Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon” the size of Australia.
…Which actually sounds awesome, just a very different kind of awesome than what we get with The Iron Giant. Seriously, someone needs to send a copy of the book to Toho.
Sadly, The Iron Giant was a flop. Warner Bros. decided to market it shittily because their prior animated feature Quest for Camelot bombed, and because they wanted to focus media attention on that timeless classic we all love, Wild Wild West.
Thankfully, The Iron Giant quickly attained cult status thanks to a second life on home video and Cartoon Network championing it as a modern classic and playing the bejeezus out of it. Director Brad Bird went on to kick ass at Pixar before branching out into live action films like Mission: Impossible-Ghost
LoadsProtocol. Here’s hoping kids and adults will keep discovering the film that, according to Bird’s initial pitch, dares to ask: “What if a gun had a soul?”