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Digitized: A young boy gets a lift from 'The Iron Giant.'

Animated 'Iron Giant' gets real about nonviolence

By Richard von Busack

HOW ORIGINAL does a great movie have to be? The Iron Giant is one of the summer's easiest recommendations, a film to delight both children and adults. Though it's one of the best of the year, it's like a tale retold instead of told.

The Iron Giant is set against the Cold War and the great atomic-war fears of the time. The first shot is of the Soviet satellite Sputnik orbiting the Earth. It's 1957, and a small Maine town is visited by an 80-foot-tall robot from outer space. The robot's appearance on Earth is never explained. It's possible that he's a soldier, a deserter from some interstellar war.

A little boy named Hogarth adopts the robot, which is essentially an enormous, unruly pet. The Iron Giant tears up railroads, chews up cars and uproots trees. His hunger for metal leads him to exposure. Hogarth and the giant hide for a time in a scrap yard run by a friendly, handsome beatnik (voiced by Harry Connick Jr.). But the Giant eventually attracts the attention of the government. The Army is called to attack.

The Iron Giant is a strangely handmade-looking epic. (To escape the tyranny of too-straight lines in computer animation, a program was developed to make the outlines tremble, just enough to look as if they had been done longhand.) The film was loaded with some of the satire that director Brad Bird brought to The Simpsons, which he worked on for the show's first eight seasons. (The ragged-toothed Hogarth has a little bit of Bart in him.) In the untamed spirit of The Simpsons, this full-length cartoon has a PG rating .

"I always wanted it to be PG because I feel that an animated film should be first and foremost a film," Bird says. "And there shouldn't be any arbitrary limits put on it just to assume that it's for an audience under the age of 8. Maybe this isn't the best film for really little children. I wanted the leeway to get intense and scary."

The Iron Giant is a literary transformer robot. It began as British poet laureate Ted Hughes' 1968 children's story about an iron man who emerges from the ocean. Hughes' Giant has a contest of ordeals with a marauding Space Bat, ultimately taming him and saving the earth. The children's book was the source for a Pete Townshend concept album and West End play, which was sold to Warner Bros. and tossed into development.

Bird found it at an open-house meeting of animators and Warner Bros. executives. By then, Hughes' idea had been boiled down to its bones, the story of a little boy and a big robot. Bird wrapped the smallness of the idea with a high-concept question: "What if a gun had a soul?"

Bird thanks a period of flux at the studio for his being able to make The Iron Giant. Warner Bros. had just lost money with The Quest for Camelot, a failure that Bird says could have been anticipated.

"Once The Lion King was a hit, my friends and I predicted very accurately what was going to happen," Bird explains. "Everybody was going to go throw money left and right, hire the wrong people for the wrong projects, make a bunch of bombs and then run with their tails between their legs. We were the beneficiary of Warner Bros. saying, 'Well, we tried doing it the Disney way--what else ya got?' We had a much tighter budget and a shorter schedule than The Quest for Camelot had.

"But if we stayed within that budget and schedule, they stayed back and let us make the film. That, to me, was the selling point to the talent. I was telling them, 'You guys, you may not get this opportunity ever again. The next film you do is going to be one of those micromanaged familiar tales with five Broadway tunes in it. So you'd better make this one count, guys.' "

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OBVIOUSLY, The Iron Giant isn't the first time we've seen this story. The idea of science fiction used as a metaphor for atomic-war panic was the subject of Joe Dante's memorable 1988 comedy, Matinee. The fatherless little boy is a constant element of Spielbergiana. ("I'm sorry," Bird says. "I couldn't figure out anything better. You try to create a hole the movie can fill. What I am proud of is that they didn't fill the hole in the conventional way.") Since The Iron Giant borrows heavily from E.T. and Christian lore, the film's ending seems foretold (though, yes, it has a happy ending).

"We talked a lot about the ending--getting it to work and getting it to play was a challenge," Bird says. "Oh, I hear myself saying this stuff, and I think of all those horrible film-school classes I had with guys who couldn't make a film to save their souls.... Our explanation was that once the Giant decided not to act with that violent side of himself, he cut that off as a possibility."

Bird's film is a story of nonviolence and what that demanding course demands. Like the very best animation, The Iron Giant plays upon deep, dark matters with speed and grace and beauty. Animated as The Iron Giant is, it makes the rest of the summer offerings look cartoonish.


'The Iron Giant' (PG-13; 80 min.), an animated film by Brad Bird, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the August 5-11, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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