It is 1957 and the first man-made object to orbit the Earth has been successfully launched by the Soviet Union: the satellite Sputnik. On terra firma, the world's thoughts have turned to space and what is out there, but one thing that was out there and has now crashlanded in the sea off the coast of Maine in the United States is a huge chunk of metal. One sailor out in the storm sees his boat smash into the structure, and before he is washed overboard onto the shore, he is certain that the object was in the shape of a massive, metal man...
Ted Hughes' book The Iron Man was a children's favourite for decades, but when it came to making a film out of it a different approach was deemed necessary to open it out. In the hands of director Brad Bird and his team, the celebrated poet's tale kept the essential themes of the source while adding a few of their own, along with the kind of action sequences that Hughes would never have dreamed of including. What should have been a mishmash of transatlantic styles ended up appealing to few at the box office, and the result was a disappointment for all those involved, but for those who did see it, the quality and skill utilised in building on the pacifist morals of Hughes' tale struck a chord.
Not least because the style of animation mirrored the meshing of old and new, so that while the human characters and backgrounds looked like the traditional hand drawn cartooning, the Iron Giant itself was a marvel of computer animation. By this time, CGI was so prevalent in the animation world that this instance made it look less classic and more old-fashioned, another reason why perhaps this did not take off as much as had been anticipated, but on the other hand it did appear so distinctive that it was little wonder that fans of the methods were very satisfied indeed. Add to this a collection of voices that brought personality to some already individual characters, and you had a highly impressive production.
The Iron Giant finds a friend in Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal), who saves him by turning off the electricity at a power substation that has it entangled in its lines. Although he could have been a troubled kid what with being brought up by a single mother, the boy is more entranced by the possibilities of a world where space exploration is beginning, and therein lies one of the most curiously nostalgic aspects to the film. Here was a work that looked fondly back on a time where paranoia was not being used against the authorities by its citizens, and was the main province of the governments of the globe, lending a wistful tone that Bird only capitalised upon. Naturally, with a towering metal man about, the military get interested, and a possible cataclysm is on the way.
This all escalates almost gently, as humour is employed to construct what could have been a smalltown cliché of the kind seen in any number of fifties sci-fi flicks. A local beatnik (Harry Connick Jr) who runs the local junkyard proves helpful once Hogarth persuades him that the robot won't harm anyone and simply wishes to eat his old cars and assorted scrap, but the boy is not quite right about his assumptions. For mortality, and mortality before your time whether it's a deer by a hunter's bullet or a society by the nuclear bomb is also on this film's mind, and it is revealed that the Giant is actually a superadvanced weapons system capable of wiping out whatever it chooses.
That being, whatever attacks it, as the likelihood of the demonised to lash out becomes plain, with the robot a scapegoat the military would be wise not to provoke. The finale is one of the most memorable in animation, with the Giant trying to live up to Hogarth's view of it as the Superman hero of the comics he reads, even as it cannot stop itself wasting the hardware that has been assembled to needlessly take him down. Overall, though, in a work rich with subtext the message was that there was no need for powerful entities to turn to aggression no matter which side they were on as intelligence and compassion should by rights cancel that out, and the entertainment value admitted in watching destruction was countered by Hughes' recognition that even better than that is watching construction: the final shot illustrates that both beautifully and gracefully. Music by Michael Kamen.