We are a species of storytellers. What once began as cave paintings has evolved into motion pictures. As cameras are becoming more accurate and animation is becoming crisper, storytelling is evolving.
There are many stories that stick with us throughout our lives: those wholesome children’s films that strike us with nostalgia and warmth. A story I’ve always kept close to my heart is The Iron Giant.
The 1999 film is an animated children’s movie that takes place in 1950s Maine. It follows a young boy, Hogarth (Eli Marienthal), and an iron giant (Vin Diesel), who form an unbreakable bond. This story comes from a book written by Ted Hughes called The Iron Man. Hughes, an American poet, wrote the story to comfort his children after his wife, Sylvia Plath, committed suicide.
At its core, the story is about becoming whole again. Losing people can feel like losing a part of yourself. This story is one of grief and of sacrifice. It is a story of humanity.
Originally, this movie was going to be a rock musical. Brad Bird, the director of the film, decided against it. This was for the best, considering the heavy topics and deep messages in the story. Through the use of stunning visuals and the realistic dialogue of the story, today the film is known as an animated classic.
Although The Iron Giant is a classic today, it did not do well when it originally premiered. The film’s budget was an estimated $50 million, though it only made $31.3 million at the box office worldwide. The movie flopped mostly due to the poor marketing campaign. But this did not mean that people did not enjoy it.
Guillermo del Toro, a Mexican filmmaker and writer, called Bird to congratulate him. He explained that although it feels like a loss in light of the box office, Bird made a classic. He said, “It will stay in the hearts and minds of anyone that sees it. It would honestly live forever.” Just as Guillermo del Toro predicted, the film became a classic.
Steve Jobs, the CEO of Pixar Animation Studios at the time of the release, hired Bird after the flop of The Iron Giant. Bird worked on The Incredibles, which won multiple Oscars, and Ratatouille. Jobs confirmed that Bird was hired because of The Iron Giant since it brought something new to animation and storytelling.
Animation of the 90s and early 2000s was a time of experimentation. The Iron Giant used both 3D and 2D animation like other films of the time: Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire are two examples. The animators chose to make the iron giant 3D, which helped to define his stiffness and robotic movements and kept other characters 2D. The film is also divided into three acts, matched to a season. The film opens in autumn, the climax occurs in winter, and the resolution occurs in spring. The changing of the seasons throughout the movie establishes the length of which this story takes place.
Due to the story’s historical setting, many characters in the film express a sense of paranoia. The film takes place during the Cold War, a time when tensions were high between America and the Soviet Union. This leads to the question of the iron giant’s identity. It is unknown if he is a Russian weapon or an alien robot. But, that doesn’t matter to the American government. Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), a government agent, is portrayed as a villain. Though his goal is to protect America, his fear clouds his judgment.
Hogarth, on the other hand, puts his fears aside and chooses to understand the giant. He sees that the giant thinks, listens and wants to understand humanity. Hogarth is a child and children often put emotions above all else. It doesn’t matter how different we are, we’re all human. And that’s how Hogarth sees the world. He believes that all lives on Earth are important.
Throughout the film, Hogarth teaches the giant about humanity. In one scene, Hogarth and the giant spot a deer. The giant is in awe of the peaceful creature until the animal is suddenly shot at the hands of two hunters. The deer dies and the hunters drop their gun and run away when they spot the iron giant. There is a moment where the giant examines the gun and understands that he, in some ways, can also be a weapon; he can kill things in an instant. Hogarth explains to the giant, “It’s bad to kill, but it’s not bad to die.” This leads the two to discuss what lies beyond death. Hogarth explains that the giant has a soul because he has thoughts and feelings like any other living creature. Then, Hogarth tells the giant that “souls don’t die.”
At the end of the film, the giant is triggered and becomes the weapon others thought he was. Hogarth yells up to the giant, saying “You are what you choose to be.” This snaps the giant out of his defense mode. But the evil government agent sends a missile toward the town to destroy the giant. His fear puts the entire town in danger. In this scene, the giant looks down at the crowd of people as the missile heads towards them. They appear as ants, small and insignificant. But to the giant, every life matters. Just as Hogarth told him, he chooses to be a hero. He chooses to be good. He lifts off the ground and into the sky, becoming a hero. Hogarth watches as he flies into the sky. Hogarth whispers, “I love you.” These three words in cinema are often used in a different sense. But here, it is just a boy who loves his friend. And that is powerful.
In the end, a statue is made of the giant and his soul truly lives on.
Brad Bird’s original pitch for the story was: “What if a gun had a soul, and he chose not to be a gun?” This film expresses the idea of choice. It’s our choices that make us who we are, not what we look like or where we come from.
This story truly changed the status quo. It changed storytelling in film. All it took was a story about a boy and a weapon— a weapon who chose to be human; to become whole.
The love for this film has only grown. Bird really wanted to create something new: The Iron Giant was that. It opened the door to a new wave of cinema.
Maddy Dombrow is a first-year Writing for Film, Television and Emerging Media major that owes her love of storytelling to Brad Bird.