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On July 31, 1999, Warner Bros. held the premiere of Brad Bird’s animated The Iron Giant in Los Angeles. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review of what would become a cult hit is below:
After one successful launch (Space Jam) and two discouraging misfires (The Quest for Camelot, The King and I), Warner Bros.’ outstanding The Iron Giant is a giant leap for the studio and robotkind. And with the steady erosion of the Disney monopoly in animation, the Aug. 6 release is a potential sleeper hit for kids and adults.
Director Brad Bird (TV’s King of the Hill, The Simpsons), adapting the original children’s book by the late British poet laureate Ted Hughes, has created a wonderful character in the huge childlike visitor from space. In the spectacular opening, the I.G. arrives in a ball of flames and crashes into the sea off the coast of Maine during a hurricane. Young human hero Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) befriends the sometimes clumsy behemoth after he saves it from being electrocuted by power lines, not knowing that the big guy has a dark secret.
Bird takes many liberties — imagining a whole different destiny and hidden persona for the mammoth lead — but the genre humor is clever and the supporting characters are mostly entertaining, while the anti-violence themes are universally relevant. Executive produced by the Who’s Pete Townshend — who released a 1989 album The Iron Man: A Musical — Iron Giant is more inspired by the previous versions than faithful to the original, with the story now set in 1957, not long after Sputnik has been launched and small-town Americans are scared by War of the Worlds-like rumors.
The elusive sense of joy, which movies such as the original Babe and Free Willy had, is found in the many funny and inventive scenes between parent-like Hogarth and the puppyish I.G. (Vin Diesel), who prowls the countryside unseen at first, eating anything made of metal. Eventually, the lead learns to speak, and Hogarth teams with junkyard-owning hipster Dean McCoppen (Harry Connick Jr.) to keep it hidden from a fanatical government agent (Christopher McDonald).
Indeed, the subplots are fanciful and semi-serious re-creations of the prosperous and paranoid times — from Hogarth’s love of Action Comics and how that inspires the I.G. to become like Superman, to the mysterious space robot’s unexpected, climactic transformation into an awesome war machine — and it might irk some NRA members and gun owners with its “what if a gun had a soul” premise.
The movie gets a bit shrill with the government agent’s antics that lead to a tearful near-disaster, which the I.G. — newly flying like his superhero idol — narrowly averts. It concludes with a beautiful homage to the end of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the opening of Ted Hughes’ original book.
The well-paced film, written by Tim McCanlies from Bird’s screen story, also features solid contributions from Jennifer Aniston as Hogarth’s single housewife mom and John Mahoney as a skeptical general, along with bit parts voiced by Cloris Leachman, James Gammon and M. Emmet Walsh.
With a 2-D visual style that is agreeably nostalgic — reminiscent of 1950s comic books and science fiction pulp magazine covers, as well as Dave Fleischer’s Superman and other ‘40s and ‘50s cartoons — Iron Giant is a terrific use of the medium. — David Hunter, originally published on July 21, 1999.
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