The Iron Giant

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

The Brad Bird Project

kids are not all right. The public’s veritable rejection of The Iron Giant
confirms it. Hollywood has succeeded in creating a moronic youth audience, a
subset of capitalism’s larger audience of robotic consumers. Like last
year’s Babe: Pig in the City, The Iron Giant should have been immediately
recognized as a near-perfect, classical expression of imagination, combining
childlike wonder and adult sophistication. But adults don’t know enough
(or keep up enough) to guide their children to The Iron Giant’s superior
entertainment and the young, savvy moviegoing audience doesn’t care, having
outsmarted itself in favor of juvenile sarcasm and pessimism (The Blair Witch

Animator Brad Bird (of The
and the now-legendary “Family Dog” episode of Spielberg’s
tv venture Amazing Stories) directs The Iron Giant to be the year’s
most surprisingly elegant animated feature. Adapting British poet Ted Hughes’
allegorical children’s tale, Bird uses an unconventionally serene palette
to illustrate how Hogarth, a fatherless boy, develops companionship with a robot
that has fallen to Earth (to Rockwell, ME) from outer space. The story is funny,
exciting and, above all, lovely in its simple expression of yearnings that even
adults may have covered up with sophistication and skepticism. Bird identifies
an unembarrassed emotional essence in Hughes’ story of friendship, adventure
and regeneration; his argument against skepticism in favor of hope puts a proposition
on moral values and artistic quality to today’s ticket-buying plebiscite:
in essence, The Iron Giant Project.

Bird told interviewer Michael
Sragow, “I hope the kids come to The Iron Giant but I really hope
the adults come, whether or not they have kids.” His tale is told in consistent
childlike terms but, recalling Spielberg’s E.T., it actually observes
Hogarth’s adolescence as a gradual maturation of faith.

Concerned with issues that
are central to the appeal of pop culture–especially for audiences with
curious minds and adult leanings–The Iron Giant plays out the pop
fascination with what’s new and strange and fulfilling. Its look intentionally
recalls a different era of imagination, evoking the subdued colors of mid-century
magazine illustration and billboard art. The colors (olive-green forests, sunset-orange
skies, shadowy subdivisions and blinding snows) suggest the period when pop
culture began its own appreciation. A fantastic new world of space-age technology
and backyard rumination–not yet out of one’s imaginative control.
Bird’s pop idealism is sweet; it embraces Sputnik, civil defense air-raid
drills, even a lone beatnik character within the sedate, small-town Rockwell
community, but it may be too affirmative to please nervous, suspicious, immature
moviegoers–the jaded audience that wants to believe oblivion lies in the
Maryland woods.

The Iron Giant’s
style evokes an awareness of pop experience and its emotional effect (thus its
moral obligation). It intrudes upon contemporary culture, going against the
blind reflexes of today’s Hogarths–unmoored moviegoing youth. Know
this: Today’s film audience has its appetite prescribed by advertising.
The conveyer belt hits of recent years mean nothing to anyone beyond their fleeting
MUST-SEE-NOW moment. So the difference between Hogarth’s time and today
not only seems distant but estranging. The Iron Giant brings back the
piquant memory of when one felt a personal connection to pop art or responded
to new toys, movies, even tv personalities because of their moral instruction
and psychological satisfaction. Pop’s value wasn’t always tainted
by corporate hard-sell. (This crucial, ardent point was entirely flubbed in

It’s hard to explain
these things to generations born into hype, who think it’s a normal process
and not a pernicious outgrowth of capitalist indoctrination. Today’s young
moviegoers (courted by Hollywood and the media) don’t realize that even
in an artificial, commercial environment some things are, if not unnatural,
then culturally untenable. The Iron Giant insists on this point by clarifying
the virtue of Hogarth and the robot’s child/toy empathy.

Despite an innate recognition
of Bird’s sensibility–every boomer must respond to the points Bird
makes here–reviewers’ lukewarm enthusiasm has consigned The Iron
to the cultural scrap heap. Its commercial flop was almost predictable–and
the roots of its failure were grievously apparent in Tim Burton’s Mars
in 1996. Even then the contemporary movie audience had acquiesced
to ostentatious f/x and violent, crude sensory prompting. Starting with the
opening credit sequence of nickel-colored discs spinning through a void from
the Red Planet toward a bowling-ball Earth, Burton remade a bygone era’s
sci-fi fantasy as an affecting phenomenon. Like The Iron Giant, the self-consciousness
of Mars Attacks! was as unexpected and shiny as a Christmas present opened
at Halloween. The adolescent sci-fi subject was trashy, but Burton’s imagery
was deeply beautiful–perhaps a too-poetic mix. The antic–and brilliant–political
satire he mixed in went unappreciated, probably confusing many. (The wild-eyed
Martians with exposed cerebral cortices were startlingly mean-spirited. With
those creatures Burton kept adolescent rebellion potent while ripening its pompous,
bureaucratic targets. The aliens’ destructive impulses were gleefully conveyed
and should have been well understood by anyone who was ever an American kid.)

Coming after Independence
’s inanity, Mars Attacks! seemed to preach at the perverted
pop audience. (Eventually championing the triumph of both b-boys and hayseeds,
its story was the pop counterculture’s last brave stand.) Burton’s
intent–to preserve pop’s subversive potential along with its artistic
ingenuity–was no longer viable. His seriousness didn’t communicate
in a marketplace given over to Hollywood’s mindless stimulation and
The X-Files
’ ready-made paranoia. Now Bird faces the same obstacle
with The Iron Giant.

Burton and Bird were colleagues
at CalArts’ animation department in the early 1980s and both are admirers
of the pioneering animators of the classic, exquisitely detailed Disney cartoons.
What’s gentle and classical in their fondly created pop art now seems tragically
out of touch. Critics no longer have a taste for it; it isn’t jacked up
enough to compete with current standards for shrill entertainment. We’ve
lost the once shared enchantment with intimately imagined tales. The f/x era
has delivered us to blatancy and excessive, ersatz fantasy. Worst of all, it’s
apparent that youth audiences have had their imaginations f/x’d.

The Iron Giant’s
graphic art outclasses the overstimulated pizzazz of recent cartoon features,
but this tasteful use of technology doesn’t make for exciting ad copy.
Technology in the service of art, of human emotion, is just what recent animation–and
current movie culture–abhors. Bird makes dramatic use of quiet space–the
animator’s equivalent to grace notes: still, solid color fields (sometimes
sky, sometimes a flat wall background) that can suggest a dimension of unobtrusive,
observable life. When Hogarth tries to hide unruly pieces of the giant’s
fragmented body from his preoccupied mother and a snooping federal agent, Bird
shows his skill in keeping the house design simple and letting Hogarth and the
giant’s free-roaming hand carry dramatic interest. Their movement is funny,
even suspenseful, but it’s the stillness of the house itself that draws
one’s interest.

It’s painfully ironic
that The Iron Giant suffers today’s indifference since its story–sort
of Androcles and the Lion between a boy and robot–explores the emotions
that transform a kid’s interest in artificial creatures and synthetic materials
into profound attachment. Bird sets the story in Atomic Age 1950s America not
so much for the now cool evocation of boomer infancy but to recapture a simpler
circumstance of childhood wonder, toy-store amazement and sci-fi plausibility.
The toy manufacturers who specialize in tie-in movie products have not, for
all their genius, figured out a way of reselling their past best ideas; new
toys announce new circumstances of fantasy, exploitable variations on basic
ideas, as part of the ongoing capitalist process. So you can’t sell nostalgia
to children and–apparently–it doesn’t much work for adults who
grew up as children of marketing. They, too, want something “new”
and thus remain unimpressed by what Bird resuscitates as basic in our pop culture.

In The Iron Giant
Hogarth’s protective relationship with the displaced robot evokes Elliot’s
friendship with E.T. and some reviewers have grumbled about that. It’s
like complaining that storytellers have a moral. That’s the value that
today’s youth audiences is denied. Only if they encounter films as good
as The Iron Giant will they know what they’re missing.

The only good line in Albert Brooks’
The Muse makes a joke on the mindlessness taken for granted in current
movies. In the opening scene Cybill Shepherd proclaims, “The recipient
of tonight’s award is the author of 17 feature films, many of them having
dealt with the human condition.”

It’s the latter concern
that makes The Iron Giant special. Among its most striking images are
the widescreen shots that toy with the differences in size between the extraterrestrial
robot and his pal Hogarth. Brad Bird uses a sense of scale that alternately
makes the robot tower in the distance or loom into the foreground, dominating
screen space. Such scenes make you experience kinesthetically the shift between
Hogarth’s humble corporeal humanity and the largeness of his aspirations
and need for friendship.

It has become increasingly
apparent (even in Disney cartoons like Tarzan, Hercules and The
Hunchback of Notre Dame
) that only animated films consistently preserve
the values of visual composition, while most movies are simply photographs of
people talking, driving or running from fireballs. But in The Iron Giant,
composition means more; it also contains the fleeting evidence of feeling and
experience. That’s what movie imagery is supposed to be about–not
merely the action. It is rare to find moviegoers who plunk down their money
expecting to glean some truth about common experience. For too many these days
the human condition is an afterthought; Brooks–like Bird–understands
how loony it is that Hollywood believes movies can possibly be made about anything
else. And that lack of affect has been taught to young viewers and filmmakers.
The Iron Giant’s overall effect is a poignant reminder that the
human condition can be a movie essential, suitable for films aimed at children
or adults, even when its context is a Norman Rockwell fantasia.