Saturday, September 28, 2013

Stubs – The Iron Giant (1999)

The Iron Giant (1999) Starring the voices of: Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr., Vin Diesel, Christopher McDonald, John Mahoney. Directed by Brad Bird. Screenplay by Tim McCanlies. Story by Brad Bird. Based on the novel by The Iron Man by Ted Hughes.Executive Producer Pete Townshend, Produced by Alison Abbate and Des McAnuff. Music by Michael Kamen. Run Time: 86 minutes. U.S. Color, Animated, Science Fiction

Every year there are films that, for whatever reason, don’t catch on at the box office. Now I know money is not the only measure of the worth of a movie, but since filmmaking is a business, films are judged by how much money they make. This is especially true of the films from the major studios, since they have the best distribution and marketing groups in the industry. If Warner Brothers or Disney can’t make you aware of a movie, who can?

Remember Quest for Camelot? You’re not alone. The film opened in 1998 on the same weekend as The Horse Whisperer, with Deep Impact already in the theaters. The following week, this behemoth called Godzilla would open. The net result was that Quest for Camelot lost Warner Bros about $40 million. That sort of return disillusioned the studio on animated films. Problem: there was already one in the pipeline. Gun shy from their last failure, Warner Bros. decided against putting the effort into The Iron Giant’s release. And guess what? It didn’t do well. While I can’t comment on Quest for Camelot, since I, along with the vast unwashed, didn’t see it, I did see The Iron Giant and I can honestly say Warner Bros. blew it on this one.

Remember Quest for Camelot? No? You're not alone.

This movie should have put its director Brad Bird on the map as a director of animated films. Lucky for all of us that would happen, but five years later with the release of Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004). While Iron Giant was a critical success and won several animation awards, those were after the fact. Warner Bros., according to filmmakers Bird and writer Tim McCanlies, didn’t realize what they had on their hands.

1957 was a time of great paranoia in America. This was the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the then U.S.S.R.  The Soviets had launched Sputnik that year, sending the U.S. into a panic. We were suddenly in the midst of a crisis and everyone felt vulnerable. All eyes were looking skyward, wondering what they might see and fearful of what might come their way.

Into this atmosphere, a large alien crashes off the coast of Rockwell, Maine. The only one to see this happen is Earl Stutz (M. Emmet Walsh), a local fisherman. He even crashes his boat into the robot before getting washed up on shore.

The next morning, Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) rides his bike to the diner where his mother, Annie (Jennifer Aniston), works. He has found a squirrel that he hopes he can talk his mom into letting him keep. While looking for it, he overhears Earl telling everyone about his close encounter and his call to the government. But everyone believes Earl is off his chum (in keeping with the fishing metaphor). Dean, a local beatnik artist, sticks up for Earl, but that only makes Earl less believable.

Dean has a squirrel in his pocket.

That night, Hogarth is left alone at home; he indulges in Twinkies and popcorn while watching bad 50’s sci-fi on the television. When the TV picture goes bad, Hogarth goes outside to check on the antenna and finds it’s missing. Seeing a bath of destruction into the woods, Hogarth, with his trusty BB gun and flashlight attached, goes looking for what he suspects and hopes are martians.

Powered by junk food and an overly active imagination and
armed with a BB gun, Hogarth gets ready to hunt for Martians

Running towards flashes of light, Hogarth comes across an electric substation just before the Iron Giant sees it. Thinking it’s food, it starts to eat the metal structures, but gets a shock when he gets entangled in the power lines. Hogarth starts to run, but hearing the Giant’s screams of agony, he goes back and turns off the power. The Giant falls down unconscious. Hogarth climbs up to get a closer look when the Giant wakes up. Hogarth runs away into his mother’s arms. While she loves him, she doesn’t believe the wild story he’s spewing. But when they drive away, Hogarth looks back and sees the Giant’s eyes watching after him.

The power station is just what a hungry Iron Giant craves.

The next day at school, Hogarth and his class watch a duck and cover film about nuclear blasts. Meanwhile, a farmer is trying to sell Dean his half eaten tractor. The next morning, government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) arrives to investigate the power plant damage. While he’s on the scene, he’s shown the BB gun that Hogarth had dropped and the Giant had crushed. But before he can leave, half of his car is eaten and when he tries to show the damage to Marv Loach (James Gammon), the foreman at the station, the rest of it has been eaten as well.

U.S. government agent Kent Mansley is sent to assess the damage down
to the power station. Here he talks with station foreman, Marv Loach.

That afternoon, Hogarth goes looking for the Giant. He has with him a camera on which he hopes to record the Giant, but he grows bored waiting for him and falls asleep. The Giant’s arrival awakens him and once again, Hogarth runs away. But the Iron Giant remembers what Hogarth had done for him. Hogarth asks him questions, but the Giant doesn’t seem to know where he came from or who he is. Hogarth notices the dent in his head, which he thinks might explain his not knowing.

The Iron Giant finds Hogarth.

Hogarth teaches the robot the difference between a rock and a tree. He’s beside himself with glee, but knows he can’t tell anyone since they might start shooting.

The Iron Giant learns from imitating Hogarth.

Meanwhile, Mansley tells the city council his theory about the sightings and the odd occurrences.
It’s getting dark and Hogarth knows he needs to get home, but the Iron Giant doesn’t seem to understand Hogarth’s command to stay. Like an orphaned dog, the robot follows him home. The Giant is hungry (he’s always hungry) and the railroad tracks they pass over on the way to Hogarth’s house are too tempting to pass up.

But Hogarth is alarmed at the sound of the incoming train and tells the giant to fix the tracks. It isn’t perfect, but the Giant is fascinated about making the rails line up and takes too long, causing the train to collide with his head. The train doesn’t derail, but the Giant has busted up into bits. When the engineers stop the train and call, Hogarth takes the Giant and hides him in the barn behind his house. The Giant, to Hogarth’s amazement, seems to be self-repairing as the various parts follow a radio signal back to the Giant and put themselves in place. All, that is, except the Giant’s left hand.

The Giant takes too long to piece the railroad track back together.

Mansley is at the Mayor’s office when the call about the train wreck comes in. Borrowing the mayor’s car, he drives out to investigate. The engineers tell Mansley that they collided with a giant metal man. Mansley needs to use a phone and is pointed to Hogarth’s house. Meanwhile, inside, Hogarth is saying grace when the Giant’s hand suddenly appears inside the house. Hogarth tries to sneak the hand out, but Mansley shows up at the door to use the phone.

He calls General Rogard (John Mahoney) and reports about the power station and the train wreck, but he gets laughed at. But Rogard tells him to get evidence before he can commit troops. When he’s driving away, Mansley realizes that Hogarth Hughes is the name on the BB gun he recovered and goes back. But the hand has gotten into the bathroom and flushes the toilet and Hogarth runs away to investigate.  He manages to sneak the hand out before anyone sees.

Mansley calls General Rogard about what he's found out.

Annie tells Mansley about the story Hogarth has been telling her. Later that night, Hogarth takes a bunch of comic books with him back to the barn and reads to the Giant. The Iron Giant is most impressed with Superman, but distressed when he finds a comic book about Atomo, an evil robot. But Hogarth tells him that he gets to choose what kind of robot he wants to be.

Hearing the Giant’s stomach growl, Hogarth takes him to look for metal. When they pass Rockwell, the Robot wants to go to town, but Hogarth has to convince him the town isn’t ready. They find an abandoned car for the Giant, but before he can eat it, Dean McCoppin Scrap tows it away. But taking the Giant to the scrap yard, he starts to pig out. He makes such a commotion that Dean comes out to investigate. Hogarth learns that Dean is into scrap so he can make it into art.

Dean makes him coffee, which makes Hogarth hyper. Dean gives Hogarth the same advice about choosing who he wants to be that Hogarth gave the Giant. When the Giant makes more noise, Dean goes out to confront him. Dean balks at putting the Giant up but relents to let him stay the night. Hogarth makes it home just in time to get ready for school. Annie surprises him with news that Mansley has rented the room.

An unhappy surprise. Mansley moves in with the Hughes'.

The next morning, Dean calls Hogarth to come get the Giant, but Hogarth can’t shake Mansley, who keeps peppering him with questions. Meanwhile, Dean tells the Giant to stop eating the art and only eat the scrap metal.

Dean tells the Giant not to eat the art.

To get rid of Mansley, Hogarth feeds him a chocolate laxative, which allows Hogarth to escape. When he finally makes it to the scrap yard he finds Dean has gotten the Giant to help him with his art. But Hogarth would rather play than do arts and crafts. But Dean gets worried that they’re too out in the open. When Hogarth suggests the lake, Dean goes.
Hogarth breaks up a chocolate laxative into Mansley's shake.

Meanwhile, between trips to the restroom, Mansley interviews locals about their encounters with the robot. While out in the woods, Mansley finds Hogarth’s camera.

Mansley uncovers the truth in between trips to the bathroom.

At the lake, Hogarth does a dive and makes a big splash. Ever impersonating his host, the Giant does the same dive, but the splash is so big that it empties the water from the lake and deposits Dean miles away in the middle of the road.

The Iron Giant makes a really big splash.

Mansley develops the photos from the camera and discovers a photo of Hogarth with the Robot behind him.

Meanwhile, out in the woods, Hogarth and the Giant witness a deer being shot and killed by hunters. When they go investigate they chase the hunters away. Hogarth doesn’t notice the Robot’s reaction to the rifle, the sight of which causes changes in him, which Hogarth interrupts. Hogarth has to explain death to the Robot.

When Hogarth makes it home, Mansley is waiting for him. Annie is working late, so Mansley interrogates Hogarth as if being a government agent gives him carte blanche. He threatens to take Hogarth away from his mom. Scared, Hogarth tells him where the Giant is hidden. Mansley chloroforms Hogarth and then calls the General. The army will arrive the next morning and Hogarth knows he has to warn Dean. But Mansley has other ideas and doesn’t let the boy out of his sight. The question is who will fall asleep first.

The next morning, Hogarth’s already up before Mansley wakes up. So by the time the Army arrives at the scrap yard, Dean is ready. He explains to the General that the giant metal man is really a sculpture he’s created and has sold to a wealthy industrialist for the lobby of his company.

The Iron Giant, posing as a piece of sculpture, fools the Army.

The General rips Mansley a new one while Annie flirts with Dean. She seems to take an interest in Dean’s art. After the army departs, the boy and robot play. Hogarth wants play to Atomo, but the Giant wants to be Superman. When Hogarth pretends to attack the robot with a toy gun, he inadvertently causes the robot to activate a weapons system in retaliation and shoots a destructive ray at him. Dean saves Hogarth and angrily commands the robot to leave, but Hogarth, believing the robot never meant to harm him, gives chase. Dean sees the toy gun and realizes that the robot cannot control its self-defense reaction. He catches up with Hogarth on his motorbike and they chase after the robot before it can reach the town.

The Iron Giant wants to be Superman.

After the Giant has run away, Dean realizes the Giant was reacting to the gun and helps Hogarth go after him. In Rockwell, the robot saves two boys who break through a balcony while watching him. The Army convoy sees the Giant in Rockwell and goes back. But before they get there, Hogarth shows up. The Army starts shooting and Hogarth tells the Giant to run away.

Dean tells Mansley the Giant has Hogarth with him, but Mansley lies and tells the General that the Giant has killed the kid. The Army goes to code red and F-86 jets are scrambled. The Giant, with Hogarth in hand, is chased over a cliff and, while falling, discovers he can fly. But when one of the jets shoots him out of the sky, the Army moves into investigate just as the Giant is looking after Hogarth’s unconscious body. He thinks the boy is dead and enraged activates its weapons and attacks the Army, who are no match for the advanced firepower.

The Army is no match for The Iron Giant's firepower.

But Hogarth recovers and succeeds in pacifying the Giant, reminding him that it is bad to kill and that he can choose not to be a gun. The Giant seems to be scared of what he’s become. Even though the General has readied a nuclear ballistic missile from the USS Nautilus, he is about to tell them to stand down when Mansley grabs the walkie talkie and orders the strike. Realizing the deadly mistake, Rogard lambasts Mansley and informs him that not only the robot, but everyone in Rockwell, will be destroyed when the missile hits. Mansley tries to escape Rockwell to save himself, but the robot stops him and he is arrested by the Army.

Hogarth convinces The Iron Giant that he is not a weapon.

With the missile launched, Hogarth explains to the Robot that once it falls, everyone in Rockwell will die. The Giant decides on its own to intercept the missile. Thinking of itself as Superman and with a smile of satisfaction, he intercepts the missile, causing a massive explosion in the atmosphere. He saves the town, but is destroyed in the process. Or is he?

The Iron Giant flies to intercept a polaris missile aimed at Rockwell.

Months have passed. The people of Rockwell recognize the giant as a hero, but everyone, especially Hogarth, is deeply saddened by the robot's sacrifice.

Annie and Dean are now a couple. Dean has erected a statue in honor of the Giant. Hogarth receives a package from General Rogard, a screw from the giant, the only part they recovered. But that night, reacting to the Giant’s radio message, the giant screw starts off in search of the robot. Hogarth realizes the Giant is still alive and lets the screw out of the house. The part starts out on a trek that will take it and other parts of the robot to the Icelandic Langjökull Glacier, where the Robot still lives.

The Iron Giant waits for his parts to find him so he can reassemble.

Having gotten the origin story out of the way, the film seems to be setting up for a potential sequel, say the return of the Giant to Rockwell and reuniting with Hogarth. But alas that’s one that got away. The film, unlike the ballistic missile launched in the movie, was a dud. The film with a budget at between $50 and 70 million earned a very disappointing $32 million worldwide.

Which is a terrible shame as the film may be, as the International Gaming Networks (IGN) once called it, the best non-Disney animated film. Unlike, say the films from Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, the film is a mix of traditional animation and computer generated imagery, which was employed for rendering the Giant.

The movie is very different from the original book, The Iron Man, written by Ted Hughes, a British  Poet Laureate and published in 1968. Not to be confused with Iron Man, the Marvel comic book character (which is why the movie is called The Iron Giant). The book takes place in England and tells the story of a giant metal man. Like our Giant, the metal man devours farm equipment and befriends a local boy. But in the book, the metal man protects Earth from a monster from outer space. In the film, the Giant saves us from our own overworked paranoia.

The book, The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, on which the movie is based.

All the voice acting is good, including Eli Marienthal, a 12-year-old who voiced for Hogarth. But the voice of the Giant is very important. Originally the role was offered to Peter Cullen, best known as the voice of G1 Transformers Optimus Prime, but Cullen was unavailable. This is why they went with a then virtual unknown named Vin Diesel (back when it was okay to like Diesel), who has gone on to star in a series of Fast and Furious films. Diesel’s deep voice works well for the Giant Robot.

The score for the film is good, but it is the soundtrack which really helps to set the mood for the film and help it seem true to the time period. The songs have an easy jazz feel, the sort of music I imagine Dean himself would probably listen to as he drank his espresso.

The film has almost everything you would want in a movie. The characters have depth to them, which is more than you often get with many films. The story has a universal quality to it, telling everyone that you are who you choose to be, a lesson we can all apply to our everyday lives. While there is a real sense of peril at the climax, the film does end on a happy and even hopeful note. Overall, this film has heart and humor.

I cannot recommend a movie more than I would recommend The Iron Giant to anyone who hasn’t seen it. This is an animated film that children should like, but that has enough meat on its bones to appeal to adults as well. It’s only too bad that the film could not take its own advice and decide to be a big hit the first time it was released.

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