Just as some gifts keep on giving, some wars are still fought long after the cease fire. A dramatic case in point is the Cold War, where the more fanatical fringes of our Right Wing continue to harp on the Red Menace and lionize sad pathological cases like Senator Joe McCarthy. At times, it seems as if bunches of our population are happily marching towards Bedlam.
But it was fascinating to your correspondent to find the debate still raging in an animated cartoon marketed to children. The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird (born 1957), was released in 1999 to universal applause and empty theaters. I believe that Warner Brothers only looked at the text of the story – boy is befriended by giant robot – and slept through the subtext. It was one of the most adult movies of the decade, and an indication that Bird, if given half the chance, would have a brilliant career before him. (And he did – later directing such marvelous animated films as Incredibles  and Ratatouille ).
The storyline of The Iron Giant is deceptively simple. In Rockwell, Maine, 1957, young Hogarth Hughes discovers a gigantic, metal-eating robot in the woods outside of his home. Of course he keeps it a secret, telling only his beatnik friend (Harry Connick, Jr.). However, a rapacious agent of the US government has tracked down the robot, wanting to take it to Washington to better serve the Pentagon.
I cannot help but wonder how Warner Brothers missed such a bet with The Iron Giant. The film opens with shots of Sputnik circling the globe, and also imaginatively recreates 1950s Superman comics, science fiction movies, duck-and-cover drills and Red Scare paranoia. In an age where most 20 year-olds are a little vague on the identity of Clint Eastwood, perhaps a film that so slavishly recreates, and then comments upon, 1950s tropes should be marketed to older adults.
There is a long and honorable tradition of adults savoring cartoons. The surrealist Popeye, Betty Boop and Felix the Cat cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s were considered adult fare (and often “intellectual” to boot). It’s only after television completely homogenized cartoons, and played them in the daily mid-afternoon “kiddie ghetto,” that cartoons themselves were viewed as strictly kiddie concerns. Bird, with his films for Pixar, and films such as Up (2009), have all worked to return animated films to their original, adult base.
The Iron Giant is wonderfully animated, beautifully played and crammed with both wit and meaning. As an entertainment product, it was miles ahead of anything that Disney was doing at that time, and avoided Disney’s trap of smarmy, self-congratulatory narcissism. The focus was on plot, exposition and character – a rarity in live action films of the decade, let alone animated features.
The Iron Giant is based upon the children’s book of the same name by English poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998); the screenplay by Ted McCanlies (born 1953) jettisoned all but the barest outline to craft an original story. Hughes, however, praised the final script, thinking it in many ways an improvement on his original novel.
In many ways The Iron Giant was a victim of its own excellence – when people wanted a disposable cartoon about funny giant robots, they got instead a mediation on the Cold War, the American gun culture, free will, conservatism vs liberalism and how we educate our children based on the toys and myths common in the playground. It could never play in Peoria….
If you think you are too adult for animated films, then by all means rent The Iron Giant. It is a particularly successful example of the heights to which this particularly American art form can soar.