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THE IRON GIANT - 1999
Warner Bros.
Rated: USA: PG

The fifties and the communist threat. For all the world it looked like the U.S. had really clinched the deal in World War II, as it did in WWI. After all, despite the "Big Three" of President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and General Secretary Stalin, only Roosevelt's country suffered no actual destruction. True, there was that horrific mess in Hawaii, but technically, Hawaii was a possession, not an actual state.

The second World War was won by the Allies again. And for the second time America came out of it looking like an invincible superman and smelling like a rose. And all the girls in all the countries that weren't American were suddenly mad for G.I.s and the U.S. Suddenly the sexiest men in the world were Americans like John Wayne, Clark Gable, and even that skinny twerp of a singer, Frank Sinatra. The men of the world take a dim view of anybody what takes thar booty! So right after WWII, when Stalin raised the iron curtain and began acting rudely toward President Truman, well, other countries may not have liked the USSR, but they were satisfied to see it poking at the U.S.

Then Stalin died suddenly under mysterious circumstances (it's altogether likely that he was poisoned by an assassin - nothing accidental). The new General Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, rose to power and began a so-called "de-Stalinization" of Russia. Life got better for Russians, but Nikita poured on the anti-American rhetoric even more. The USSR was going out of its way to provoke an eventual confrontation with the U.S. We were the big boy on the block. It didn't matter if we were the relatively nice big boy (no country is nice, but they do have varying degrees of calumny), we needed to be knocked down a few pegs. It was a matter of national pride for all. No one wants to hear their people cheer, "We're #2! We're #2!"

What's more, Nikita set out to PROVE Russia was better. During Nikita's reign, whatever America accomplished, Russians were told that they had invented it first! Well, except for the A-Bomb. The Americans clearly had that first. So Nikita went whole hog pushing for a space program. Russia would OWN space! Then the MOON! The earth would soon be in a goldfish bowl and that bowl would belong to Russia! In 1957, the proof of Russia's rise to technological superiority - the thing that made the whole world think, "Wow! Maybe America isn't that great after all!" was a silvery sphere called Sputnik. It was the first artificial man-made orbiting object, fired into very low earth orbit and silvery for a reason. So that, day or night, it would brightly reflect the sun and everyone on earth could see Russian superiority passing over their heads - watching them.

In the U.S., the simmering paranoia of a communist threat bloomed and the Cold War was on. And that's where THE IRON GIANT begins: earth, 1957, with the Soviet Sputnik 1 orbiting above. Something fiery comes out of space on a collision course with earth. A fisherman, caught in a storm, sees the glowing, falling object fly through the sky and strike the Atlantic's surface. Interesting, but he has no time for that now. His boat could capsize in the storm or hit the rocks if he doesn't see the lighthouse.

But wait, is that the lighthouse up ahead?

The next day we meet Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal - you know, Stifler's brother!), a kid around 12 or so and kind of runty for his age. The local paper's headlines scream of the Russian Satellite seen at night. As Hogarth tries to convince his busy waitress Mom, Annie (Jennifer Aniston: LEPRECHAUN, DERAILED), to let him keep a squirrel he found, the cafe is abuzz with the night's storm.

Fisherman Earle Stutz (M. Emmett Walsh: ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, BLADE RUNNER, BLOOD SIMPLE, CRITTERS) survived the night and is regaling the locals with his tales of invaders from Mars! They aren't buying it though, and openly mock him. To the rescue comes fellow cafe customer, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.: BUG), who backs up Earle's story, claiming he saw it too. The locals mock Dean as well. Dean and Earle are clearly fringe in the all-white town of Rockwell, Maine.

The idea of a monster from outer space in his hometown, naturally excites Hogarth, who whispers to Dean "I believe you!"

Dean shrugs and summarizes his character, "Kid, I didn't see anything. But if we don't stick up for the kooks, who will?"

Meanwhile Hogarth's squirrel gets loose in the cafe and merry mishaps occur.

Late that night, alone at their rural home while his Mom works overtime, Hogarth watches a 50's style scifi movie. Then the picture goes out right when it gets to the good part. Investigating his outside TV antenna, Hogarth discovers that it's mysteriously broken with the topmast gone. Then he looks toward some distant noise and sees the forest near his house has been brutally parted as if a train ran through there. But from high up on the roof of his two-story home, Hogarth can see that this train leaves footprints.
"Invaders from mars!" he whispers.

His childish curiosity aroused, Hogarth arms himself with his trusted BB gun and runs off to investigate. It's only a matter of time before Hogarth finds the Iron Giant (Vin Diesel: PITCH BLACK, BABYLON A.D.).

Hogarth and the giant

Scary things, dangerous things, wonderful things, they mostly fly under the radar. But in 1957 America when the newly formed NSA and CIA were frantically looking for reasons to exist, the threat of a communist invasion felt all too real. In 1956, Soviet Premier, Khrushchev, while addressing Western Ambassadors in Moscow, was translated as saying "We will bury you." You couldn't have asked for a more stark threat.

So when Earle Stutz starts making calls to the government in Washington about seeing a Sputnik, or giant mechanical something, or maybe even invaders from mars, our government is at least obliged to send someone out to debunk the story.

Enter one Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald: THE FACULTY, AWAKE), from the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomena. Aloof and self-important, Kent is only here to put the minds of these local yokels to rest so he can get back to where "Big things happen in big places." Of course, Kent gets the shock of his life, which puts him on full blown fear alert which, in turn, bends the ear of one General Rogard (John Mahoney: BARTON FINK, PRIMAL FEAR) back at the Pentagon. Kent Mansley is on the case, and the full brunt of the U.S. military isn't far behind.

In lesser hands, THE IRON GIANT would have been a disaster.

The robot eats metal, which means that other directors would do stupid things like have it belch and fart: Cheap jokes that would never get them out of Open Mike at a comedy club. But we are talking about early The Simpsons alumni and Director, Brad Bird (THE INCREDIBLES) here. Brad has a proven track record of making fun, smart animation and storytelling: Possibly too smart for Hollywood.

Working off a story he adapted from the novel, (The Iron Man, by Ted Hughes), and wrote for the screen by Tim McCanlies, Bird delivers a movie without a single sour note. The friendship that develops between Hogarth, the Giant, and Dean feels real. The family dynamic between Hogarth and his Mom is solid. This is a movie with incredible heart

I remember when THE IRON GIANT came out in theaters. I didn't watch it, I didn't want to. Why? The trailer on the DVD will show you why. The trailer comes off as one big synopsis, seeming to give away everything, reveal all of the surprises. Gah!

Also included on the DVD extras is the trailer Brad Bird wanted, which is clearly superior as it reveals nothing of the plot and keeps the compelling mystery of the tale throughout. Warner Bros. shot themselves in the foot by advertising their movie with the wrong trailer.

There are some nice DVD extras on this one, including many story board scenes that weren't used: some of them contrived, tired, and hack, and would have made the movie worse. That Brad Bird allowed his story board artists to flex their imaginations, even if he didn't use their ideas, shows the descriptive sense of narrative talent he brings to a project. One sequence I would have LOVED to see though, is the "Giant's Dream". Wow! That could have been SO cool!

I also have to give credit to the late great composer, Michael Kamen (BRAZIL, EVENT HORIZON, XMEN), whose music was the perfect emotional voice for this movie from beginning to end.

I count THE IRON GIANT among the best in hand drawn animation, one of the best movies ever, and I'm sorry I missed it on the big screen. If someone in Hollywood remake land is looking for a reboot, a live-action version of THE IRON GIANT could be great! And why not? Ted Hughes also wrote the sequel, THE IRON WOMAN. There's a franchise possibility here, so yeah, go for that live action movie! You'll need Brad Bird on the case though, and all that implies.

All five Shriek Girls!

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
This review copyright 2009 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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TRIVIA
WHO co-founder, song writer, and lead guitarist, Pete Townshend, was executive producer on this film and wrote the original musical,
THE IRON MAN
,
as a soundtrack for the book by Ted Hughes.


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