Looking back at The Iron Giant: the best family film you’ve never seen?

Over a decade since its release, The Iron Giant remains one of the very best animated films in a generation from Hollywood. Might it just be the best family film that you’ve never seen?

Talking to Roy Conli a few weeks ago around the release of Disney’s Tangled, which he produced, we got chatting about Treasure Planet.

I’ve always been a fan of the film, yet we ended up agreeing that it was a film whose failure could, in significant part, be put down to arriving at just the wrong moment.

Treasure Planet turned up as Pixar was growing in strength, with Disney on a corporate downward curve, and with animation embarking on a massive technological arms race that consumes the box office to this day. In short, Treasure Planet was a film, like it or not, a good five to ten years ahead of its time.

But if Treasure Planet got a rough deal by when it was released and how it was sold, that’s nothing on The Iron Giant.

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“Hundred foot robot? Hee hee! That’s nutty!”

The film came out in the US on 3rd August 1999. Two months before, Disney’s Tarzan had proven that there was still lots of life in hand-drawn animation at the box office, and three months after, Pokemon would do so again. So, in theory, the film stood a chance.

Yet, it died a death at the box office, grossing $23m in the US. Even a promised DVD push from Warner Bros failed to turn the tide, and The Iron Giant looked set to live on undiscovered gems lists for years to come.

Thank goodness, then, for a growing core group of fans online, who have kept the torch burning for this exceptional, special film. And if you’ve not yet had the pleasure of it, then grab yourself a drink, and let’s have a go at convincing you to give it a try.

Note that we’ll be discussing spoilers ahead.

“Please, sir. I’ve got a feeling about this one.”

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Based on a novella by Ted Hughes, and released the year after he died, at heart The Iron Giant is a tale of a young boy and a very unlikely friend. Said unlikely friend happens to be a very big, mysterious robot, who lands on Earth and is quickly discovered by said young boy, whose name is Hogarth.

And here’s the first clue that The Iron Giant is willing to tackle things in a different way. For economy of storytelling is key here, and while many movies would tease and build up to the reveal of the title character, director Brad Bird is keen to get him out there as quickly as possible. And so, he does.

It takes little time for the two to meet, and through the superb evolution of their relationship, the two of them become chums. That friendship is cemented with a perfectly pitched scene where Hogarth effectively teaches the seemingly gentle giant how to talk.

Rewatching the film, it immediately became apparent just how much the terrific How To Train Your Dragon owes to The Iron Giant here. Because that, too, contains a wonderfully handled sequence, where Hiccup must get through to his new friend, and the two mirror each other well. But for me, The Iron Giant has the edge.

For there’s not an ounce of fat here. From start to finish, it feels as if someone has gone through The Iron Giant and trimmed away anything we didn’t need and focused entirely on what’s required for the story and characters to work.

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That’s quite an art, and in this case, it results in a running time of just an hour and a quarter. But as animated movies push closer and closer to the two hour mark, there’s a case for more in the industry to take note of what The Iron Giant gets through in so little time.

Back to the film, though.

It should be said that there’s nothing massively revolutionary to the main narrative. The inevitable theme, of people being scared of what they don’t understand, is brought to the fore, but what lends the story extra resonance is its utterly inspired setting. For The Iron Giant movie is based in 1957 (Hughes’ originally story wasn’t), at the height of the Cold War. Featuring frequent references being made to the Sputnik satellite that Russia had just launched, paranoia is the dark undercurrent to the film, and distrust, as a consequence, is paramount.

And the film doesn’t shy away from it, either. It’s at its most overt when we cut to Hogarth’s school classroom and they’re watching a film offering advice on how to survive an atomic bomb.

I love that it doesn’t pull back on this. There’s something really sinister about watching material such as that in a cosy, cartoon form, and the scene gets me every time. No wonder the film’s main characters, including Hogarth’s mother, Annie, and scrap dealer, Dean McCoppin, have a believable fear running through their lives.

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What the uncertainty of the time also allows is for the military to take an involved and convincing part in the story. At the forefront of it is the at-first friendly face of Kent Mansley, who proves to be a pivotal character in the film. His initial reasonableness is what makes him such a three dimensional antagonist come the finale of the story, and what’s interesting is that he and Hogarth never really have a massive conflict until the very end of the film.

Until then, Brad Bird plays them as a pair who don’t trust each other, but who also keep that as much under the surface as possible.

The best manifestation of this? The scene near the middle of the film, where they sit in opposite rooms, staring each other out (it’s really quite creepy, too). There’s no mawkish song. There’s no temptation to cut away unnecessarily, or insert a joke. It’s a moment that Bird absolutely commits to, to real effect.


So, we’ve talked about the narrative, we’ve talked about the characters, and we’ve talked about the setting. I could also wax lyrical, too, about the wonderfully understated visual style, the willingness to pull back to a long shot at the right moment (Wall-E is the only animated film since that’s done that quite so successfully), and the way that so much is conveyed simply through eyes.

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Yet, you can’t talk about The Iron Giant without appreciating the majesty of the title character itself. He’s a brilliant creation, utilising computer technology to bring him convincingly to life. He’s shot with a real sense of scale, too, and Bird’s camera angles deserve to be studied and appreciated at any film school.

Crucially, he’s utterly believable, which makes the moment when his real reason for being, as he turns in a flash into a scarily potent war machine, is revealed. It’s done so with real impact, through something as simple as pointing a toy gun (the film has a strong anti-gun message running through it). At that moment, the eyes turn red, and weaponry that wouldn’t look out of place in a Michael Bay movie is suddenly deployed. And, quick as a flash, he’s back to normal.

All of a sudden, this character you’ve warmed to for most of the film becomes the one you’re least likely to trust. And that’s what makes the inevitable military intervention so believable.

“You stay. I go. Don’t follow me.”

Yet, Bird saves the most brilliant moment of the film until pretty much the end. Right through the script, there are comic book references, specifically Superman. And that comes to the fore in heart-breaking effect, with the utterance of the one word that The Iron Giant uses to break down tear ducts in many of those who watch it. For, as the giant soars through the sky, he makes his choice as to what he wants to be, uttering his final word, “Superman”, just before he closes his eyes and is blown to smithereens.

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Even writing it, it brings me out in goosebumps. It’s exceptional cinema.

Don’t overlook, either, that, leading up to it, Brad Bird builds up to the moment expertly. The impending bomb is seen slowly rising and falling in the background as the characters ponder, in steady panic, just what they can do. It’s like it’s a prop in the background, but one whose significance is lost on no one. Then there’s the giant, looking down on the people who have taken him to their hearts at last (the perspective of these frames is quite brilliant), and then looking up at the missile, realising what he has to do.

And, heck, I’m going to say. When Hogarth looks to him for the last time, and whispers “I love you” to the giant about to soar to his doom, it pretty much broke my heart.

On paper, it sounds cloying, a mawkish moment that ninety-nine percent of directors would struggle to make work. Here, it’s stunning, packing a massive emotional wallop, primarily because it felt so real and so believable.

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“Souls don’t die.”

Critics might argue that the film should have had the courage of its initial convictions and not brought the giant back together at the very end. I can see that argument both ways. But I can only call it on the end result, and the choices that were made. And I genuinely find it very, very hard to fault The Iron Giant.

It’s a film where detail matters. Where every look of the eye has a reason. Where Michael Kamen’s score knows when to kick in, and when to shut up. Where Disney legends Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas are brought in for voice cameos. Where Brad Bird (who would go on to make The Incredibles and Ratatouille, for Pixar), with a tight budget and a ruthless schedule, never takes his eye off the ball once. And it’s one where the sugar bowl that’s infected so much of Hollywood family animation is kept very firmly in the cupboard.

Instead, what we have is one of the most exceptional hand-drawn animated films of all time. Had Disney made it, we’d been regularly celebrating it, buying Diamond Edition Blu-rays, and eagerly awaiting theatrical re-releases. But Disney would never have made this in the mid- to late-90s. Instead, Warner Bros did, and then found that it simply couldn’t sell the film.

But, perhaps that’s now our job. Because The Iron Giant isn’t the first outstanding film to be overlooked on its theatrical release, and it won’t be the last. Yet, it is one that deserves to be passed on, to be recommended and to celebrated.

Which is where we come in. Because films like The Iron Giant shouldn’t be lost, and it’s through word of mouth that it continues to find new audiences, over a decade after it limped away from cinema screens.

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It might not boast lunchbox-adorning characters. It may not have an album of songs to sell. And it doesn’t have the comfort blanket of being a sequel, or part of a massive franchise.

Instead, The Iron Giant has one major factor in its corner that deserves to keep it being talked about for decades to come: it just happens to be absolutely brilliant. Pass the word on…

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