Remembering.... The Iron Giant
By Jasper Bruce
The period between the mid 1990s and the mid/late 2000s was a golden age of animated film. The advent of computer animation, the rise of Pixar and the peppering of adult humour into a medium previously reserved for children paid dividends in the eyes of critics and audiences. Nestled amongst this chronology of classics is an often forgotten treasure - The Iron Giant. The film turns twenty this year, but seems not to spark the widespread feelings of nostalgia that its contemporaries do.
Inquisitive young Hogarth Hughes, the son of a single mother in 1950s rural Maine, makes a startling discovery after venturing into the forest one night: a giant metal man, apparently from outer space. However, when a paranoid government operative catches wind of Hogarth’s new pal, he begins to suspect it has been sent by Russian adversaries.
The genius of The Iron Giant lies in its juxtaposition of Cold War hysteria with the simple good morals of a child. Released ten years after the Cold War ended, the film has had enough of a cooling-off period to be both sharp and pressing in its satirical moments (a singalong educational video about ducking for cover from A-Bombs is a highlight).
More than this though, The Iron Giant is a story of redemption and self-determination - ideas rarely tackled by films aimed primarily at children. One character’s statement that “you are who you choose to be” resonates throughout. The line becomes something of a thematic adhesive, as the giant attempts to reconcile his initial destructive purposes with the morals Hogarth has taught him. Unlike many of its genre, this isn’t a film that has “goodies” or “baddies”. Instead, it relishes moral ambiguity and champions empowering everyone, even those who seem destined to succumb to tragic self-fulfilling prophecies.
Of course, most of this was lost on me and my brother when we rented the VHS of The Iron Giant ad nauseum from Round Corner Civic Video from about 2002-2004. Eventually, they just gave up and let us have the tape. I often wonder if Civic Video would still be in business if Harley and I had to keep renting The Iron Giant - just as Hogarth inspired The Iron Giant to be the best version of himself he could be, maybe we could have kept the doomed video franchise afloat for just a bit longer. The fact that as four year olds we could enjoy The Iron Giant for its explosions and robots just as much as we now enjoy it for its emotional and moral gravitas is probably what has ensured the film’s cult status.
So happy 20th birthday to a film that was a cornerstone to less childhoods than it should have been. If you haven’t seen it, go now. Regardless of your age, you will not be disappointed.