The pedigree for the new Warner Brothers animated film, "The Iron Giant," would seem to be less than promising. First, Warners has a pretty poor track record when it comes to the genre, with disasters like "Quest for Camelot" and the woefully bad adaption of "The King and I."
Second, message oriented cartoons are generally heavy-handed propaganda like "Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest," or "Pocohantas." Also, "The Iron Giant" is based on a pacifistic children's book, "The Iron Man," by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, who famously left his wife, Silvia Plath, just before he celebrated suicide. The book was also the inspiraton for a pretty awful Pete Townsend antiwar rock and roll opus.
But surprisingly, as animated message movies go, "The Iron Giant" has a considerably lighter touch than the usual suspect. Even more surprisingly, it is a lot of fun.
Kind of a cross between "E.T." and "The Day the Earth Stood Still," the movie tells the story of Hogarth Hughes, a kid growing up in Rockwell, (get it?) Maine, a picturesque fishing town in the 1950s. Fatherless, (no explanation) he is largely left to his own devices because of the long hours his mother Annie, (Jennifer Aniston) works in the local diner.
Of course, Cold War tensions are high, and one of the dominant themes of entertainment is invasion from Outer Space. Both fears come to the fore, when a huge, metal alien crashes into the ocean near Rockwell.
One night, Hogarth saves a giant metal-- and metal eating-- man when he tries to take a bite out of a local power station. Soon, like E.T., Hogarth and the giant form a bond, as Hogarth teaches the gargantuan amnesiac about life on Earth, and life in general.
They are befriended by an early beatnik, Dean McCoppin, (Harry Connick Jr.) who can't decide if he's "an artist who runs a junkyard, or a junkyard owner who's an artist."
The menace in the story is provided by Kent Mansley, (Christopher McDonald) a government agent who sees Communists under every bush. He doesn't care if the Giant is from outer space or China, "We can't be sure, so that's why we have to blow it to smithereens!" He finally convinces the Army to pursue the Giant.
It seems like every kids' movie these days has to have tolerance as one of the values it espouses. Of course, Stalinism was not something worth tolerating, and the reason America was anxious about Communism wasn't because we were afraid of something we didn't understand-- but because we understood it perfectly well.
But other than the intoning of the phrase, "Guns kill," several times, much of the political subtext of "The Iron Giant" will pass over most kids' heads. There are a few oversteps, such as when the Army shells Giant in while he's in the middle of town, but mostly, the excesses are painted as Mansley's personal agenda, rather than a broader one.
On the plus side, virtues such as self sacrifice, heroism, and justice take center stage, and are the things kids are much more likely to take with them from the story. There is even discussion of such a thing as an "eternal soul." (actually soul and spirit are not interchangeable, but such quibbling is definitely demanding too much of the moviemakers, methinks).
Unlike most flicks of this type, "The Iron Giant" gives kids credit for being able to enjoy a straight up story without talking animals or musical numbers. The old style animation fits right in with the period, giving "The Iron Giant" a classic feel-- though what the animators lack in new computer-drawn technique, they creatively make up for with a fine artistic sense.