Back in the '80s, Steven Spielberg produced a short-lived "anthology" TV series called Amazing Stories, which were mostly sci fi or fantasy shorts, often with interesting directors. It's ironic, but I thought the best Amazing Stories episode was one that had nothing to do with sci fi or fantasy, and was in fact the series' lone animated episode. It was called Family Dog, and it was written and directed by a newcomer named Brad Bird.
Though Family Dog's character designer - a chap named Tim Burton - soon went on to fame and fortune, Bird himself disappeared. And I always wondered about that, because his work was fantastic. I must have watched my VHS tape of Family Dog at least a dozen times. Well, Bird wasn't exactly twiddling his thumbs over the ensuing decade; he worked as a behind-the-scenes "consultant" for The Simpsons, among other animated series. (Family Dog itself was developed as a series a few years back, but it failed.) But The Iron Giant is Bird's true comeback - and what a comeback it is.
The film itself seems, like its robotic protagonist, to have fallen out of the sky. Released by Warner Bros. - who I don't think has produced a single frame of non-Looney Tune, non-Batman animation in decades - this is a wonderful cartoon about a young boy in the 1950s who befriends a gargantuan space android who has crash-landed on earth.
Although the storyline may call to mind a slew of Japanese boy-and-robot movies, The Iron Giant feels distinctly American in its style and in its storytelling. With a voice cast of pseudo-names (Jennifer Aniston as the boy's single mom, Harry Connick, Jr. as a beatnik who romances the mom, and the aptly named Vin Diesel providing the metallic voice of the robot itself) and a rich, storybook-like visual style, The Iron Giant is a handsome production.
But what really soars is the emotional resonance of its script, written by Bird and Tim McCanlies and adapted from a 1968 novel called The Iron Man by acclaimed poet Ted Hughes. Perhaps it is Hughes' poetic pedigree that helps elevate this film into something much greater than a mere tale of human-robot friendship. For The Iron Giant has a strong pacifist message, which comes to the forefront when it's discovered that the robot is actually (and against its own beliefs) a weapon - and that the paranoid US military will do anything to destroy it.
Whatever the case, The Iron Giant is a one-of-a-kind classic, and should not be forgotten even if Warner Bros. has done a terrible job marketing it, and even if it doesn't fit in with current Disney and Pixar trends.