The Iron Giant
The Brad Bird Project The kids are not all right. The public's veritable rejection of The Iron Giant confirms it. Hollywood has succeeded in creating a moronic youth audience, a subset of capitalism's larger audience of robotic consumers. Like last year's Babe: Pig in the City, The Iron Giant should have been immediately recognized as a near-perfect, classical expression of imagination, combining childlike wonder and adult sophistication. But adults don't know enough (or keep up enough) to guide their children to The Iron Giant's superior entertainment and the young, savvy moviegoing audience doesn't care, having outsmarted itself in favor of juvenile sarcasm and pessimism (The Blair Witch Project). Animator Brad Bird (of The Simpsons and the now-legendary "Family Dog" episode of Spielberg's tv venture Amazing Stories) directs The Iron Giant to be the year's most surprisingly elegant animated feature. Adapting British poet Ted Hughes' allegorical children's tale, Bird uses an unconventionally serene palette to illustrate how Hogarth, a fatherless boy, develops companionship with a robot that has fallen to Earth (to Rockwell, ME) from outer space. The story is funny, exciting and, above all, lovely in its simple expression of yearnings that even adults may have covered up with sophistication and skepticism. Bird identifies an unembarrassed emotional essence in Hughes' story of friendship, adventure and regeneration; his argument against skepticism in favor of hope puts a proposition on moral values and artistic quality to today's ticket-buying plebiscite: in essence, The Iron Giant Project. Bird told interviewer Michael Sragow, "I hope the kids come to The Iron Giant but I really hope the adults come, whether or not they have kids." His tale is told in consistent childlike terms but, recalling Spielberg's E.T., it actually observes Hogarth's adolescence as a gradual maturation of faith. Concerned with issues that are central to the appeal of pop culture?especially for audiences with curious minds and adult leanings?The Iron Giant plays out the pop fascination with what's new and strange and fulfilling. Its look intentionally recalls a different era of imagination, evoking the subdued colors of mid-century magazine illustration and billboard art. The colors (olive-green forests, sunset-orange skies, shadowy subdivisions and blinding snows) suggest the period when pop culture began its own appreciation. A fantastic new world of space-age technology and backyard rumination?not yet out of one's imaginative control. Bird's pop idealism is sweet; it embraces Sputnik, civil defense air-raid drills, even a lone beatnik character within the sedate, small-town Rockwell community, but it may be too affirmative to please nervous, suspicious, immature moviegoers?the jaded audience that wants to believe oblivion lies in the Maryland woods. The Iron Giant's style evokes an awareness of pop experience and its emotional effect (thus its moral obligation). It intrudes upon contemporary culture, going against the blind reflexes of today's Hogarths?unmoored moviegoing youth. Know this: Today's film audience has its appetite prescribed by advertising. The conveyer belt hits of recent years mean nothing to anyone beyond their fleeting MUST-SEE-NOW moment. So the difference between Hogarth's time and today not only seems distant but estranging. The Iron Giant brings back the piquant memory of when one felt a personal connection to pop art or responded to new toys, movies, even tv personalities because of their moral instruction and psychological satisfaction. Pop's value wasn't always tainted by corporate hard-sell. (This crucial, ardent point was entirely flubbed in Pleasantville.) It's hard to explain these things to generations born into hype, who think it's a normal process and not a pernicious outgrowth of capitalist indoctrination. Today's young moviegoers (courted by Hollywood and the media) don't realize that even in an artificial, commercial environment some things are, if not unnatural, then culturally untenable. The Iron Giant insists on this point by clarifying the virtue of Hogarth and the robot's child/toy empathy. Despite an innate recognition of Bird's sensibility?every boomer must respond to the points Bird makes here?reviewers' lukewarm enthusiasm has consigned The Iron Giant to the cultural scrap heap. Its commercial flop was almost predictable?and the roots of its failure were grievously apparent in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! in 1996. Even then the contemporary movie audience had acquiesced to ostentatious f/x and violent, crude sensory prompting. Starting with the opening credit sequence of nickel-colored discs spinning through a void from the Red Planet toward a bowling-ball Earth, Burton remade a bygone era's sci-fi fantasy as an affecting phenomenon. Like The Iron Giant, the self-consciousness of Mars Attacks! was as unexpected and shiny as a Christmas present opened at Halloween. The adolescent sci-fi subject was trashy, but Burton's imagery was deeply beautiful?perhaps a too-poetic mix. The antic?and brilliant?political satire he mixed in went unappreciated, probably confusing many. (The wild-eyed Martians with exposed cerebral cortices were startlingly mean-spirited. With those creatures Burton kept adolescent rebellion potent while ripening its pompous, bureaucratic targets. The aliens' destructive impulses were gleefully conveyed and should have been well understood by anyone who was ever an American kid.) Coming after Independence Day's inanity, Mars Attacks! seemed to preach at the perverted pop audience. (Eventually championing the triumph of both b-boys and hayseeds, its story was the pop counterculture's last brave stand.) Burton's intent?to preserve pop's subversive potential along with its artistic ingenuity?was no longer viable. His seriousness didn't communicate in a marketplace given over to Hollywood's mindless stimulation and The X-Files' ready-made paranoia. Now Bird faces the same obstacle with The Iron Giant. Burton and Bird were colleagues at CalArts' animation department in the early 1980s and both are admirers of the pioneering animators of the classic, exquisitely detailed Disney cartoons. What's gentle and classical in their fondly created pop art now seems tragically out of touch. Critics no longer have a taste for it; it isn't jacked up enough to compete with current standards for shrill entertainment. We've lost the once shared enchantment with intimately imagined tales. The f/x era has delivered us to blatancy and excessive, ersatz fantasy. Worst of all, it's apparent that youth audiences have had their imaginations f/x'd. The Iron Giant's graphic art outclasses the overstimulated pizzazz of recent cartoon features, but this tasteful use of technology doesn't make for exciting ad copy. Technology in the service of art, of human emotion, is just what recent animation?and current movie culture?abhors. Bird makes dramatic use of quiet space?the animator's equivalent to grace notes: still, solid color fields (sometimes sky, sometimes a flat wall background) that can suggest a dimension of unobtrusive, observable life. When Hogarth tries to hide unruly pieces of the giant's fragmented body from his preoccupied mother and a snooping federal agent, Bird shows his skill in keeping the house design simple and letting Hogarth and the giant's free-roaming hand carry dramatic interest. Their movement is funny, even suspenseful, but it's the stillness of the house itself that draws one's interest. It's painfully ironic that The Iron Giant suffers today's indifference since its story?sort of Androcles and the Lion between a boy and robot?explores the emotions that transform a kid's interest in artificial creatures and synthetic materials into profound attachment. Bird sets the story in Atomic Age 1950s America not so much for the now cool evocation of boomer infancy but to recapture a simpler circumstance of childhood wonder, toy-store amazement and sci-fi plausibility. The toy manufacturers who specialize in tie-in movie products have not, for all their genius, figured out a way of reselling their past best ideas; new toys announce new circumstances of fantasy, exploitable variations on basic ideas, as part of the ongoing capitalist process. So you can't sell nostalgia to children and?apparently?it doesn't much work for adults who grew up as children of marketing. They, too, want something "new" and thus remain unimpressed by what Bird resuscitates as basic in our pop culture. In The Iron Giant Hogarth's protective relationship with the displaced robot evokes Elliot's friendship with E.T. and some reviewers have grumbled about that. It's like complaining that storytellers have a moral. That's the value that today's youth audiences is denied. Only if they encounter films as good as The Iron Giant will they know what they're missing. Clipped Condition Critical. The only good line in Albert Brooks' The Muse makes a joke on the mindlessness taken for granted in current movies. In the opening scene Cybill Shepherd proclaims, "The recipient of tonight's award is the author of 17 feature films, many of them having dealt with the human condition." It's the latter concern that makes The Iron Giant special. Among its most striking images are the widescreen shots that toy with the differences in size between the extraterrestrial robot and his pal Hogarth. Brad Bird uses a sense of scale that alternately makes the robot tower in the distance or loom into the foreground, dominating screen space. Such scenes make you experience kinesthetically the shift between Hogarth's humble corporeal humanity and the largeness of his aspirations and need for friendship. It has become increasingly apparent (even in Disney cartoons like Tarzan, Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) that only animated films consistently preserve the values of visual composition, while most movies are simply photographs of people talking, driving or running from fireballs. But in The Iron Giant, composition means more; it also contains the fleeting evidence of feeling and experience. That's what movie imagery is supposed to be about?not merely the action. It is rare to find moviegoers who plunk down their money expecting to glean some truth about common experience. For too many these days the human condition is an afterthought; Brooks?like Bird?understands how loony it is that Hollywood believes movies can possibly be made about anything else. And that lack of affect has been taught to young viewers and filmmakers. The Iron Giant's overall effect is a poignant reminder that the human condition can be a movie essential, suitable for films aimed at children or adults, even when its context is a Norman Rockwell fantasia.
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