First published under the title The Iron Man in Great Britain in 1968, The Iron Giant is a minor classic of 20th-century children's literature. The slim volume by the English poet laureate Ted Hughes is a pacifist parable in the guise of a sci-fi hero fantasy. Hughes spun his yarn of a giant robot who, befriended by a little farm boy, saves the world from a monstrous "space-bat-angel-dragon" in language of swift, hard beauty and with a lordly and refreshing indifference to narrative logic. At one point, for instance, a seagull picks up the severed hand of the title character, who has "a foot as big as a single bed."
It's a slight but charming book. The surprise is that the film that's been made by drastically reworking it expanding on the characters, narrowing the scope, rethinking the period and theme, and, above all, Americanizing the story from top to bottom is every bit as enchanting, maybe more. The Iron Giant should be a gross vulgarization, but instead, it is quite probably the best animated feature for children since Disney's Beauty and the Beast.
The director, Brad Bird, has reset the story in coastal small-town Maine of 1957. The little boy, still named Hogarth, is now the son of a single mother, an imaginative kid who loves comics and scary late shows. The Giant retains the most captivating traits that Hughes gave him. He still likes a good nosh of metal, a car or a tractor, and he can still reassemble himself when he breaks apart, but he's less of a mysterious figure here. An alien from space, he was plainly built as an instrument of war. This identity becomes ingeniously central to the movie's refashioning of the material.
The sensibility with which Bird, working with screenwriter Tim McCanlies, endows the film is distinctly modern, while the treatment of the period is retrospective. As in the Hughes story, Hogarth finds a home for the Giant at the local junkyard, but that junkyard is now run by a friendly beatnik who turns the twisted scrap metal into sculpture. And instead of the "space-bat-angel-dragon" descending from a star, the menace in the film is far less allegorical it's the paranoid, red-hunting U.S. government in the person of a snooping, bumbling, falsely fatherly G-man.
In a real '50s movie, this character would be played by John Agar or Richard Carlson, and the boy would latch onto him at once as a father figure. But in The Iron Giant, Hogarth immediately and instinctively dislikes him, recognizing him as a threat to his iron pal. Real '50s sci-fi movies also usually contained some variation, in describing the need to keep the monster or alien invasion top secret, of the line "If word got out, it would start a general panic."
Bird sees a different source for the panic. Most of the trouble in the plot comes from the unstable G-man, and there is a reference to the "duck-and-cover" nuclear-war propaganda that has a nice payoff in the final minutes of the film. Bird inverts the view of the '50s that we get from most films of that decade so cleverly that the vintage tunes on the soundtrack, by the likes of Jimmy Rodgers, Ray Charles and the Coasters, lose their quaintness and sound truly, and splendidly, subversive.
Rhapsodizing about The Iron Giant's complexity and richness of detail might give the wrong impression of the film. The delight of the movie is that it isn't heavy or didactic; the thematic side of it is fine brushwork in an unpretentious, funky, fast- moving tale for kids. It's also a visual feast of deep, ravishing colors and supple movements. There are unfussy hints, in both the narrative and the imagery, of Christian allegory, and even this doesn't throw the tone off. The last few shots of the film, set on a field of ice, are perhaps a bit more explicit than necessary, but this is as close to a criticism of The Iron Giant as one gets.
Bird was a major force behind shows such as The Simpsons, The Critic and King of the Hill cartoon sitcoms that for the past decade have regularly been putting their live-action counterparts to shame. These series hinge on throwaway gags of almost subliminal speed and subtlety; likewise, The Iron Giant keeps its social commentary and "deeper meanings" on the margins. The film isn't as blisteringly satirical as The Simpsons; it's warmer. And although its nostalgia isn't simplistic, it is affectionate. But Hogarth isn't a goody-goody. He's a boy you might have actually enjoyed playing with when you were a kid, and, splendidly, you never hear him puling about not having a father. Indeed, you get the impression that Hogarth sort of enjoys the freedom that having a busy single parent allows him. He isn't Bart Simpson, but he and Bart Simpson would have been friends.
The voice cast Eli Marienthal as Hogarth, Jennifer Aniston as his mother, Christopher McDonald as the G-man, Harry Connick Jr. as the beatnik, and John Mahoney, Cloris Leachman, James Gammon and M. Emmet Walsh in smaller roles are all effortlessly effective. The most touching performance, however, is that of the appropriately named Vin Diesel (of Saving Private Ryan), who's the voice, and the heart, under the metallic scrapes and creaks and groans that issue from the Giant's ponderous mouth.
Clanking tin-pot robots go back in the cinema at least as far as the '30s, and they've been befriending little boys ever since the '50s, in movies like Tobor the Great, The Invisible Boy and The Colossus of New York. It's a classic daydream of American boyhood on an episode of the TV sci-fi comedy Futurama, a robot asks the hero whether he'd want a robot for a friend, and the hero says he has wanted one since he was about 7 years old.
Robots have also been developing their own feelings and desires quite literally for as long as the term "robot" has existed. (The word, which derives from the Czech robota, or "forced labor," was coined by dramatist Karel Capek for his 1921 play R.U.R., a story of a futuristic class of artificial workers seeking the right to self-determination.) In The Iron Giant, the title character realizes he was intended as a fighting machine "a gun" in his vocabulary and through Hogarth's humanizing influence he decides that he doesn't want to be a gun. Bird and McCanlies have adapted the material in the best sense; they use the American idea that you can choose to be whatever you want as the moral of the story.
Stanley Kubrick, much on everyone's mind these days, gave a computer an independent humanity in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the machine promptly turned into a murderer. Bird's Giant might be called the anti-HAL. Reputedly, the project with which Kubrick hoped to follow Eyes Wide Shut was called A.I. short for "artificial intelligence" and was about the relationship between a robot and a boy. It's pleasant to speculate that, just maybe, Kubrick's pessimism might have lifted over the years, and that this unrealized movie might have had some of the same spirit as The Iron Giant.
Opens Aug. 6.