The 90s gifted us with an incredible lineup of animated films that have since become beloved classics. Toy Story, The Lion King, and Aladdin all come to mind when naming some of the decade’s best. With that said, The Iron Giant stands out as a hidden gem among a treasure trove of animated goodies. In fact, it’s still my favorite film to this day. Released in 1999, The Iron Giant was a commercial flop despite being a critical darling. Though it suffered from a poor marketing campaign, it has since escalated from cult status to a near mainstream must-see. The Iron Giant has stood the test of time, and it remains a masterpiece in animated filmmaking.
Set in the United States during the Cold War, the film follows a young boy named Hogarth Hughes who befriends a giant robot that crash-landed from outer space. Hogarth takes it upon himself to protect the giant from the U.S. military and evade the suspicion of deranged government agent Kent Mansley. Though its premise is quite simple, The Iron Giant profoundly explores themes like love, loss, and even death. Director Brad Bird beautifully infuses themes surrounding life’s most complex questions into what some might dismiss as an animated children’s tale. But The Iron Giant is so much more than that. Even as an adult, the film resonates with me the same way it did in 1999, thanks to its exceptional writing, directing, and voice cast.
The Iron Giant boasts a stellar lineup of talent, featuring notable stars like Jennifer Aniston and Harry Connick Jr. Yet, it’s Vin Diesel as the titular metal man who truly shines. Sure, the giant doesn’t speak often. But there’s a charming innocence in Diesel’s delivery that gives the extraterrestrial titan the aura of a naive child. Eli Marienthal is pitch-perfect as the young and adventurous Hogarth, and Christopher McDonald is excellent as the egocentric Kent.
The film realizes each character so well that I often forget this is a piece of animation. No two characters are alike. Each one is so deeply humanized and expertly crafted that it’s hard to believe this is Bird’s directorial debut. Bird has since built himself a resume of animated hits such as The Incredibles, its sequel, and Ratatouille. Even so, it was his very first film that paved the way for such a legacy.
Speaking of which, Bird’s talent for blending humor and dramatic tension is one of the many reasons The Iron Giant holds up so well on repeat viewings. Watching Hogarth and the Giant’s relationship gradually develop is every bit as heartwarming as it should be. In fact, their unique brotherhood is ultimately what holds the film together. The beautifully hand-drawn animation only enhances the experience, and I believe it to be one of the film’s greatest strengths. Every character is fluid and wildly expressive, flowing through every emotion and gesture flawlessly.
Michael Kamen’s delightful score is worth praise as well, most notably the occasional trumpets and drums that invoke that feeling of 1950s post-war era patriotism. I’m happy to say that 21 years on, the film is still gorgeous in every way. It almost breaks my heart to know that we’ll likely never see another theatrical release for 2D animated films of this kind. There’s a special charm that just can’t be replicated, and The Iron Giant is proof of that.
What The Iron Giant might lack in a complex plot is more than made up for by its themes, specifically its exploration of mankind’s most frequently asked questions. Though the film has its share of action sequences, my favorite moments are the quieter, contemplative ones. The giant’s pondering of life’s great mysteries and Hogarth’s attempts to teach him are primarily why I rewatch the film so often. There’s a genuine sincerity in the giant’s actions. Whether he’s reading a Superman comic with Hogarth or expressing curiosity in an afterlife, it’s just a joy to watch a machine built for war find new purpose in a world unfamiliar to him. It’s even more satisfying to see him renounce the violence in the film’s climax. With this one act, it reminds us of all of the importance of genuine love and kindness.
Every moment, large and small, culminates in the film’s third act. Hogarth’s relationship with his larger than life companion is tested, resulting in an incredibly powerful finale. The final few minutes resonate with me just as deeply as they did years ago, in a way that so few films manage to do. I wouldn’t say that Iron Giant pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in the medium, but instead, it embodies every good thing animated filmmaking can have. It’s perfect family viewing, never too childish or too mature to turn anyone away from it.
20 years after its release and I’ve only come to love it more as I’ve grown older. The Iron Giant is a gold standard of what every animated film should set out to achieve. It’s a glorious 90-minute tale of friendship, love, and drama wrapped neatly in a science fiction package. The story of The Iron Giant is one of great simplicity, but also one of incredible importance reminding us all that it’s not who you are, but what you do that defines you. –Danny O’Brien
The Iron Giant is available now on blu-ray.
The film stars Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick, Jr., Christopher McDonald, Eli Marienthal, and Vin Diesel.