The Iron Giant - Signature Edition (1999) Blu Ray (Warner)
This Warner animated feature is set in Maine in 1957, when a mysterious object falls from space just off the coast of a sleepy seaside town called Rockwell. Amongst the inhabitants are Hogarth Hughes, a young boy who lives his mother Annie (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) who herself works as a diner waitress and rents out their spare room to make ends meet in their father’s absence.
That night when wandering out in the woods he encounters a giant iron robot (voiced by Vin Diesel) that loves to eat metal objects. While initially terrified of the creature, Hogarth discovers that it means him no harm and the pair start to form a bond of friendship. However it isn’t long before the US authorities are on their tail, led by a ruthlessly ambitious agent named Kent Mansley (voiced by Christopher McDonald). When the latter’s car is chewed up by the robot he goes to the Hughes’s house to use their phone - and overhears about the kid’s discovery of the mysterious being. Keen to follow the lead further, Kent rents out the spare room.
It’s up to Hogarth and his friend Dean McCoppin (a scrapyard owner who sidelines in turning his haul into works of art) to hide this lumbering beast from the authorities before they find it and bring in the military to take it out as a perceived threat.
The Iron Giant was a major flop on its release, taking just over $31 million versus a production budget of around $80 million - despite wide and well-deserved critical acclaim. In fact, it’s a surefire contender for the most undeserved box office failure of all time.
It’s one of those films where everything comes pretty close to perfect. It’s visually beautiful, mixing hand-drawn and CGI animation almost seamlessly in an evocation of the somewhat angular pop art style of the time. The action sequences are superbly orchestrated, making maximum capital out of the titular character’s great size to exhilarating, scary and funny effect. The pacing is pitch-perfect, giving us just enough breathing space to engage with the characters without letting the action lull for long. There’s also a genuine heart here as the metal beast learns about the value of life and need to avoid slipping into violence. Admittedly things can get a little preachy, but at the same time there is a genuinely perceptive look at how societal paranoia engenders violent “get them before they get us” attitudes. This was relevant during the heightened Cold War tensions of the 1950s period represented here, and is just as relevant now in these perpetually on-edge modern times. At the same time there is a genuine affection for the era as shot through the filters of comic books, B movies and beatnik culture. In many ways it’s an ideal companion piece to Joe Dante’s Matinee, but with a more substantial and satisfying story. The film’s moral sweep arching over the vast setpieces is in many ways more Ghibli than Disney, but that’s hardly a bad thing.
There are many nuances to the film that I love, from the expressionistic use of light and shadow, through the Spielberg-like mastery of making a lot with little during the setpieces (where often what’s not shown is more important than what is), to the well-rounded characters. My favourite of these characters however has to be Kent Mansley as voiced by Christopher McDonald. He mixes in smarmy ruthlessness with just enough bumbling fallibility to give him as weight of threat without making him unbearably scary for younger viewers. Film buffs might also note that his scenes in the house with Hogarth where he turns the screws on the boy to find out what he knows have a sinister air and dark visual language that’s satisfyingly reminiscent of Night Of The Hunter.
Two versions of the film are on this Blu Ray - the original version and the signature edition. The latter has just two additional scenes which don’t spoil the pacing and flow of the movie but do add a little texture to the story; the first is a diner scene where Dean strikes up a conversation with Annie, the second a dream sequence where he has a nightmare where he envisages the Iron Giant as part of an army of invading robots. It’s a notch better than the original version, but not by much; it was such a great film in the first place that it’s hard to significantly improve upon anyway.
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Runtime: 90 mins
Dir: Brad Bird
Script: Brad Bird, Tim McCanlies, from a novel by Ted Hughes
Voices: Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick Jr, Jennifer Aniston, Vin Diesel, Christopher McDonald
It's a superb looking presentation with the film's varying colour schemes coming through vividly. The picture is near flawless and grain-free, and even those ever-tricky gradients of darkness in many scenes come through in a rich but clear manner. Great stuff.
A fine presentation with the orchestral soundtrack and the Iron Giant's distinctively heavy movements bringing the proceedings superbly to life.
The Giant's Dream
This excellent 55 minute documentary has Brad Bird narrating over archive footage along with rough cut animations and hand drawn stills from moments in his career.
It starts out by looking at Brad Bird's childhood introduction to Disney animation and internship with the studio. We learn that at the time he came aboard the old masters were retiring and the new executives were, in his view, letting down what Disney stood for - resulting in some heated arguments which ended with him being shown the exit door.
Disappointment then turned to grief as his sister was slain by her husband in a gun incident - a sad moment that clearly did a lot to inform his next chapter in his life: joining Warner's animation wing and signing up to do an adaptation of Ted Hughes's book The Iron Man, which was in itself inspired by Hughes's wife Sylvia Plath committing suicide.
The second half follows the production of Iron Man including the challenges in working to strict time and budgetary constraints, Bird's heated relations with the studio bosses and producer Alison Abbate, and the difficulties in making computer graphics match the imperfections of hand-drawn animations.
It ends on the disappointment as the film bombs at the box office despite overwhelmingly positive test screenings and reviews - a failure due largely to the fact that Warner failed to market the film properly. Things end on a happier note however as the film has since become remembered as a bona fide animated classic. It's a story almost as touching and engaging as the film itself.
Of note, the Blu Ray gets a 12 rating due to Brad using the word "pussies" here.
Commentary by Brad Bird, Tony Fucile, Jeff Lynch and Steven Markowski
This interesting commentary reveals such details as how unusual the use of extremes of light and darkness seen here were in animation and how the character of the Iron Giant was developed through the course of the film from a de facto puppy dog that blithely follows Hogarth everywhere through to the darker and more complex figure he reveals himself to be. We see how seemingly superfluous details are used to effectively tell the story - from the scene where Hogarth shows comic books to the titular character as a way to define his inner struggle, to the way in which the non-conforming beatnik figure of Dean is a representation of the message of "be who you choose to be".
There's a pleasing general impression that Brad and the rest put a huge amount of thought into storytelling and tone.
A collection of rough cut scenes complete with introductions by Brad Bird, most of which were removed to condense the story. The best is the last one, featuring Cloris Leachman as Hogarth's teacher.
There are several vintage featurettes from 2003:
- Teddy Newton: The X Factor
A look at storyboard artist Teddy Newton, focussing largely on an imaginative (though dropped) sequence chronicling a blind date between Annie and Dean.
- Duck and Cover Sequence
A look at the complete Teddy Newton storyboarded sequence of a nuclear attack preparation film (part of which is seen in the finished film). Complete with an incongruously chirpy accompanying song, it's blackly hilarious.
- The voices of The Iron Giant
A look at the casting of the various voice actors in the film. Rather brief and insubstantial; with the notable exception of Vin Diesel we don't even get any interview contributions from the actors themselves. A wasted opportunity.
- The Score
Interview with composer Michael Kamen, talking about crucial sections of the score and the privilege of working with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Short but with an interesting revelation of Kamen's own opposition to the right-wing paranoia that Kent's character represents.
- Behind The Armor
A series of odds and ends about the history and origin of the production, with much focussing on the conception of the titular creature itself. There is some overlap with The Giant's Dream but it does have moments of individual interest, particularly when looking at how the animators gave the Iron Giant expressiveness, and how Brad had to reign in the creative sprawl of the final battle sequence.
- Motion Gallery
A collection of storyboards, animatics and concept art mixed for comparison with clips from the finished product.
- A vintage "Making Of" from 1999
A rather glib glorified marketing piece hosted in a patronising manner by Vin Diesel. Pretty skippable and redundant in comparison to the infinitely more candid The Giant's Dream.
- Vintage Easter Eggs
A congratulatory letter from Ted Hughes and a few joke animations.
The Salt Mines
A short doc about the retrieval of the original film artwork, which was stored in Warner's archive under a salt mine in Kansas, along with around three million other pieces of film history. If nothing else, we get a good sense of the vast scale of such an archive.
A brief reminisce about hand-drawn animation, and how its inherent imperfections are somehow more perfect because they contain emotion. Nice, but a very brief 1 minute and 40 seconds.
A pair of trailers round out this exemplary and extensive collection of extras.
If you love the film and already have the DVD then this is a very worthy upgrade. If you’ve never seen Iron Giant well… then this is an absolute must.