Combustible Celluloid
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With: (Voices) Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel, James Gammon, Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney, Eli Marienthal, Christopher McDonald, M. Emmet Walsh
Written by: Brad Bird, Tim McCanlies, from the book by Ted Hughes
Directed by: Brad Bird
MPAA Rating: PG for fantasy action and mild language
Running Time: 87
Date: 07/30/1999

The Iron Giant (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Mr. Roboto

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Directed by Brad Bird, The Iron Giant one-ups Tarzan as the best animated family movie of the summer and, for that matter, in quite some time. In this movie a young boy named Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal) brings home a giant robot who lives on a diet of metal. Afraid that his mother (Jennifer Aniston) maynot like the idea of having this "guest," Hogarth decides to hide the robot in ascrapyard run by a beatnik artist (Harry Connick Jr.). Soon the FBI and the Armyare looking for the robot and everything goes haywire.

The story takes place inthe 1950's and Bird uses the tensions and fears of the time to underline hisplot. He also throws in an amazing collection of out-of-the-ordinary period poptunes. In addition to the warm humor of this movie the animation in The Iron Giant, which uses computer effects for the robot and hand-drawn animation forthe humans, is outstanding.

I spotted a few Chuck Jones-like moments in The Iron Giant, such as when Hogarth and the robot come upon a deer in the woods. Bird gives us a faraway shot of the deer, high up from the robot's point of view, and the deer has an expression on its face as it returns the robot's gaze, taking a moment for comic effect a la Wile E. Coyote.

Perhaps not amazing, but still unusual, is how Bird captured Hogarth's movements in such a way that I really believed I was watching a young boy in this movie. I was even more amazed at the expressive quality of the robot's face. With only its jaw and eyes capable of movement, Bird and his team still had the robot portray a whole range of emotions: confusion, hope, wonder, and sadness. This is a breakthrough for computer animation. Jar Jar Binks on the other hand does not begin to approach this level of expressiveness.

In addition to its technical achievements The Iron Giant is also very funny. It utilizes sophisticated and hip humor along with slapstick, taking it to a level above your usual animated movie. Little touches make The Iron Giant special, as when the robot's disembodied hand gets loose in Hogarth's house, runs into the bathroom, and begins unspooling the toilet paper like an annoyed cat.

Bird apparently animated one sequence, the coffee jag, by himself, which points to just what a labor of love this was, rather than just a marketing decision and a product to help sell toys. Clearly, The Iron Giant is something special.

In November of 2004, Warner Home Video released a Special Edition to replace the regular 1999 DVD version. The new version is supposed to be digitally remastered, but it's difficult to tell any difference from the high-quality original. The main difference between the two discs is that the 1999 version was geared toward younger viewers and the 2004 version is geared toward older film buffs. The new version comes with a commentary track and several featurettes, including 13 "branching" featurettes that can be viewed during the feature. The old version has a simple "making-of" mini-documentary and a music video that are not on the new disc. True fans will probably want to own both, but if you already have the old disc and you're only interested in the movie itself, there's no need to buy the new one. In any case, it's nice to see Warners giving this underrated film a new push.

Warner offered the first Blu-ray edition in 2016, with a combination of extras from both the 1999 and 2003 DVDs, as well as a few new featurettes. There's a very good, nearly hour-long making-of documentary, filled with original hand-drawings to illustrate the stories leading up to the movie. In another, the original drawings are retrieved for the first time since 1999, and Bird offers a sincere wish that hand-drawn animation will never die. I did not realize this, but the 2003 edition contained a slightly longer version of the film (apparently with a teeny bit more violence and some smoking, although both versions are rated PG); both are available here. The picture and sound are amazing.

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