Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #3: The Iron Giant

Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I just decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan like last winter). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a weekly (I'm going to try, I swear...) feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.

The Iron Giant was released in 1999 and since then I've run into it time after time on lists of the most underrated films of the 90's (and maybe even a few 'of all time').  I was admittedly dubious.  Maybe it was because the last bit of feature length animation to shoot out of Warner Bros. studios was the tepid Quest for Camelot, and at that point I was too bewitched by Princess Mononoke to stoop to a questionable level. Let's face it, Warner Brothers, past the Looney Tunes and a bygone early 90's era of Spielberg-driven Saturday morning fare, isn't really recognized as a source for fully developed cinematic paint & ink.  Past that, I could keep going with the reasons for my dismissal of the film. Maybe it was because on paper The Iron Giant reads as a film too specifically catered towards a split parent/child audience for me to think it would be anything other than sweet and boring.  Maybe it was because Jennifer Aniston was the actress associated with the film, I don't know.  There are a million excuses I could use to outline why I didn't watch The Iron Giant, but none of them are good reasons. Really. I'm an animation lover! I don't fight this shit!  I watch it!  I even watched Disney's drecky cow fiasco Home on the Range!  Yet, I ignored this film for nearly eleven years. 

It's time to make good.  Here's the most important thing I have to say about The Iron Giant.  It really is that underrated. It has to be acknowledged. It's also, almost hand's down, maybe the best project involving Jennifer Aniston probably ever. 

At the time of its release, Hollywood produced animation was at the brink of a sea change.  2D animated films were on their way out of vogue.  Pixar was slowly building momentum, Disney was moving into a slump of some of their most forgettable films. When a traditional cartoon did show up it was spoiled by a lack of sophistication, irritating song-and-dance numbers, and comedic cheap shots.  Things weren't looking so good.  The Iron Giant was the WB's worthwhile attempt at smarter family films.  Had they marketed it better, we could have been looking at a very different Hollywood landscape.  As it stands, they dropped the ball, the film was a flop, and the company decided to make Osmosis Jones.  Quelle domage.

Now may be a good time for a re-release.  A steady diet of Disney/Pixar has primed the masses and reminded them that the best children's movies are the ones that don't play down to a lower intelligence.  Directed by Brad Bird (who went on to write and direct the much praised The Incredibles and Ratatouille), The Iron Giant is a slick piece of work revolving around a simple premise: giant alien robot lands on Earth, boy (his name is Hogarth) meets robot, boy befriends robot, boy and robot are faced with tremendous obstacles.  It's a bit like E.T., that is, E.T. had been a built as a weapon and if Elliott had been mouthier, snarkier, and a hell of a lot more street smart. 
Set in 1957, the story slowly builds into a politicized story that offers up a heaping helping of Cold War/Red Scare/Space Race context for the adults while giving the kids a remarkable fantasy about the power of friendship.  This is, of course, one of Bird's specialties.  The Incredibles, to a child, is a very straightforward piece that takes their cartoon heroes and gives them a dysfunctional family.  To the informed, slightly older viewer, however, it's another story entirely, a brilliant homage that tackles and inverts an entire comic book genre in the same manner as The Watchmen while lovingly serving up reference after reference within a quirky framework of marital disputes and midlife crises.  Same goes for Ratatouille.  You there for the talking rat or the gently crafted foodie Francophilia?  The Iron Giant is a prelude to this sort of Pixar produced magic.  It's a cartoon that moves through the American pastoral of the 50's with such a smart script and so much believable detail (right down to the Forbidden Planet poster on Hogarth's wall) that it's sometimes difficult to remember that you're watching little more than a series of drawings.  Yet, Bird never lets it drift too far towards nostalgia.  The Iron Giant feels fresh and has an attitude all its own. You become invested in these characters, in the need to keep the Giant hidden and for him to overcome his mechanized nature.  The villain (a gung-ho, self-serving military man) is truly dispicable, and you hate him the way you (probably) hate Hans Landa.  The humor is wistful and clever, rarely resorting to slapstick to get its point across.  The pieces all add up to something that's truly surprisingly deft in its execution and that never compromises.  Hogarth is quite a hero.  He does it his way, he gives all types a fair shake, he sticks it to the man, his best friend is basically the autobot you always wanted on your team.    
   All in all, I really feel like someone needs to take the blame for not actually forcing me to watch this movie sooner.  Friends and family? That's it. I can't trust anyone anymore.  No one took up the responsibility, looked me in the eye and said "You. You like cartoons.  You like sci-fi.  You appreciate inanimate objects with faces.  You need to watch The Iron Giant."  Nobody did that.  Seriously people, what's wrong with you?

1 comment:

  1. Very well exposure.Iron giant is a great blend of animation, sci-fi, and 1950's cold war paranoia. Enjoyable characters with voice acting equal to the task.


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