I’m a pretty sentimental guy. I’ll admit that. It doesn’t take a whole lot for a movie to get me all teary-eyed, but there aren’t a lot of movies out there that can truly revive in me the imagination and adventure of my childhood. When one does come along, it creates the kind of experience that makes the film an instant classic in my book. They are the kinds of movies that serve as the best remedies for rainy Saturdays or when I’m stuck at home, sick in bed. It’s a pretty short list of movies that make that big of an impact, but The Iron Giant is right up there at the top.
The late fifties were a crazy and unsure time for the world. The Cold War was raging silently as the US scrambled furiously to keep up with the Soviet Union following the launch of their powerfully mysterious Sputnik satellite. Citizens of both countries were weighed down with confusion and fear over the build up of atomic weapons. But a force even more powerful than anything either country knew was about to crash land into the ocean off the coast of Maine. Fortunately, the first person it would come into contact with was the best possible representative of all that is innocent on our planet: a child.
Hogarth Hughes is an adventuresome, fun loving kid. After his father’s death in the war, his mother has struggled to support and raise him on her own. One night, while she is working late, Hogarth is lead by a strange trail of damaged trees to a power station where he encounters a giant robot, trapped in the power lines. Moved past his fright by the robot’s oddly human screams of pain, Hogarth rescues the robot by turning off the switch to the station, freeing the robot from it’s electrical entanglement.
Hogarth slowly begins to understand that the iron giant was somehow damaged and (luckily for earth) suffers from a sort of amnesia. Eager to learn more about himself and the world he’s stuck on, the robot quickly accepts Hogarth’s friendship and the two embark on a cautious journey of discovery. But Hogarth isn’t the only one aware of the robot’s arrival. Kent Mansley, a very jumpy government agent, is hot on the pair’s trail, determined to prove to the world that its greatest threat is wandering secretly among them.
Brad Bird, now acclaimed director of Pixar’s latest triumph The Incredibles, made his feature debut with The Iron Giant, proving immediately that he is one of the master movie storytellers of our time. The story is based on the classic children’s “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes. Bird took the book and flushed it out into a cinematic masterpiece. Unafraid of a PG rating (a trait that he used to bring Pixar into the non-G realm as well), Bird managed to give the movie just enough of an edge to make it believable without creating something parents should be afraid to let their older children enjoy.
The movie’s flawless incorporation of CGI and traditional hand drawn animation is stunning. In a time when 2D animation was getting a run for its money from the likes of Antz and Toy Story 2, Bird stuck with the time-honored art form using computer animation to enhance the film’s more geometric elements. Despite its brilliant artistic success, watching The Iron Giant still sadly reminds me that it may very well be the last great hand drawn animation movie for a long time to come.
The unusual, but genius voice casting is another unmistakable Brad Bird finger print. Using the likes of Harry Connick Jr. to play a beatnik and Jennifer Aniston to play a struggling single mother wasn’t perfect enough. He had recognized and was capitalizing on the vocal talent of Vin Diesel to voice the robot well before anyone knew who Vin Diesel was. In the same vein, Bird called upon the quirky talents of Michael Kamen to create the ideal score for the beautiful story. The music is really the unseen narrator to the story and creates the moments in the film that make you laugh and cry while giving you goose bumps and spine tingles.
The Iron Giant is everything you could want in a movie, all blended perfectly together. Never mind that it’s animated, it’s still the magical kind of film that a group of adults can gather around to watch and slip back into the almost magical joy and adventure of being a kid.
To say I’m disappointed with this DVD release would be an understatement. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s still a good disc, but a movie this amazing deserves something far greater for a "Special Edition" release. The entire thing feels like it was rushed together to coincide with the arrival of The Incredibles and capitalize on Brad Bird’s popularity. Here’s a tip to the folks at Warner Bros.: if it all fits on a single DVD, you haven’t done enough yet.
On the positive side, all the basics are covered. The movie’s appearance got a wonderful touch up with a full digital transfer, allowing all the beautiful detail to come to life. The movie almost looks better than it did on the big screen and has prompted me to start a campaign to get this movie re-released on IMAX.
Another big plus is quite a bit of Brad Bird humbly discussing his brilliant achievement. Despite the phenomenal success of both of his feature length projects, I had never seen his face or heard his voice before watching this disc. Looking suspiciously similar to Syndrome from The Incredibles, Bird gives enjoyable and interesting insights in the making-of featurettes. His discussion in the movie’s commentary track (which he made in conjunction with a few other members of the creative team) is a little less exciting but still better than the usual dry and dull drivel that the more self-important directors spew forth.
The deleted scenes are by far the best presentation I’ve ever seen in an animated film package. Even Bird’s story boards (all of which are animated) are fun to watch. Two of the most exciting segments include an alternate opening to the movie and a couple of sequences that Brad admits he wished he had included in the film. My favorite was a scene where the giant, fast asleep, has a disturbing dream in which flashbacks of his past are revealed, giving a frightening glance at the true nature of his design.
For all the great stuff included with the DVD, there is just simply not enough. A movie this great deserves more. Most of the really interesting making-of features are only available through branching, that annoying technique where little icons pop up on the screen and interrupt the movie to show you the goods. On top of that annoying presentation, every single segment is unsatisfyingly brief. When the making-of materials don’t add up to at least an hour’s worth of watching, the disc does not deserve to be called Special Edition.
I was sincerely expecting to see an isolated score track. It’s a simple enough bonus feature that is underutilized in DVD releases. Granted, not all movie sound tracks deserve such attention, but Michael Kamen’s work in this movie is just too good to not get at least that much recognition. It would at least be the perfect homage to a musical genius who passed away just last year.
While I hate double dipping as much as the next guy, I desperately hope there is a better version of this disc somewhere in the not too distant future. Warner Home Video and Brad Bird, hear my plea! Give it us as the Gold Version. Call it the Platinum Edition. Do whatever you have to, but give us something better than this! In the meantime this release is still the best way to own The Iron Giant and it deserves to be at the top of every movie-goers Christmas wish-list.