Brad Bird is probably best known as the genius behind The Incredibles. However, he was also one of those responsible for another brilliant piece of animation, one rather unfairly obscure: The Iron Giant.
Something crashes to Earth during the Cold War, leaving a trail of destruction through the Maine woods; when this giant mechanical figure rises and tries to find its way out, it encounters an electrical substation and electrocutes itself.
Hogarth Hughes, a young boy who lives on an isolated farmstead with his mother, Annie, sees the trail of destruction and follows it, eventually finding the eponymous Iron Giant. Hogarth quickly discovers that despite its fearsome appearance, the Giant is utterly innocent and friendly – in fact, it has suffered complete amnesia and is a blank slate. Hogarth, an aficionado of comic books and science fiction, naturally thinks this is the absolute coolest thing ever, and undertakes to teach the Giant everything he can; when the Giant is badly damaged after being struck by a train, Hogarth manages to hide him in his family's barn.
But the Giant's arrival did not go unnoticed, and Special Agent Kent Mansley of the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomena soon is on the trail of Hogarth and the Giant.
The Iron Giant is a beautiful period piece, capturing the idealized America of the 1950s and adding in more authentic flavoring of Cold War paranoia and strong themes of self-determination and choice versus destiny and basic nature. Hogarth is a very convincing child character, but smart and loyal, whose actions in meeting and befriending the Giant may have actually saved the world – for we see evidence later that the Giant's true original nature was very far from peaceful, and his powers of offense and defense are terrifyingly great.
The conflict of trust versus paranoia is also a powerful and central one, and brings about the climactic scene of the entire movie, in which the Giant has to decide whether he will protect these people or not – some of whom have sought to injure not just him, but the boy he'd come to care for.
I am quite deliberately not saying much about the details of the plot. In some ways The Iron Giant is a very simple and straightforward movie, and because of that if I detail many more facets of the story or characters it will largely spoiler the rest of it. But what I will say is that this is a film with a wonderful talent for covering the gamut between atmospheric terror, whimsy, drama, and sheer joyful comedy – a range few movies of any type can manage.
There is in my view only one real flaw in The Iron Giant, and that is the character of Kent Mansley; he is made out to be cowardly at certain points which I think would have been more effective had he NOT been a coward – the danger of a paranoid is that they believe in their paranoid cause, and a person like Mansley would, as a character, have been better served to show that through strength rather than a predictable weakness.
Still, how many movies have only one flaw? This is a marvelous movie, good for adults and kids, and well worth spending an hour and a half to see the one of the most unlikely friendships and the genesis of a most peculiar hero, whose final act brings tears to my eyes whenever I see it. I highly recommend The Iron Giant.