Friday, June 8, 2012

Beast of Burden

AARGH! I am so sick of the current inability of Hollywood to actually engage in competition and earn its box office dollars. With many films sporting excessively large budgets, studios are so scared of rival films biting into their bottom line that they will do anything within their power to prevent such a threat from occurring, often shifting their own films to less occupied release dates. Occasionally you will see a pair of new releases on the same day, but more often than not they appeal to widely diverse demographics (such as this weekend's pairing of the R-rated sci-fi thriller Prometheus and animated family film Madagascar 3). In the past month, there has been barely more than one single major release per weekend, and that can make things difficult for someone who posts his movie musings here three time a week. I was looking at the few remaining titles out there I haven't seen, but religious war film For Greater Glory and stoner comedy High School barely get more than minor shrugs from me; I'm no more interested in reviewing them than most of you are in seeing them, so why should either of us waste our time?

So I decided to take a Netflix Streaming day. Yes, I know many of you have cancelled your subscriptions because there really isn't all that much left on there that's any good. It's also disappointing when the service actually has cool, big-deal movies available, only to remove them a short time later. Still, you can find some nice gems if you go digging, and that's where I found The Iron Giant yesterday. Despite the growth of 3D animation that began with 1995's Toy Story, classic 2D animation was still the norm in 1999, when Warner Bros released The Iron Giant with weak marketing on its way to an even weaker box office run. Despite its early failings, it was quite the critically-acclaimed film, and has become a monumental success from DVD sales. It's also one of those films that people you know will highly recommend if you haven't seen it, and when I did finally see it on Netflix, I figured that I had nothing to lose, and pressed the "play" button.

Set in 1957 at the height of America's fears of the Red Menace, Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) is a smart, impressionable child whose only desire is a pet, and therefore friend, all his own. After several failed attempts (to the annoyance of his single mother, played by Jennifer Aniston), Hogarth finally gets his wish, though in no way that he expected. Something from space has crash-landed near his sleepy Maine town, and when it turns out to be a giant, metal-eating and amnesiac robot, Hogarth becomes his first and best friend. But the world isn't ready for the Iron Giant, and when the military learns about the beast from paranoid government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), they come in full force to put down this monster from places unknown.

I don't know any other way to say this: I loved The Iron Giant. I loved the needling at just how paranoid of Communism and Soviet Russia we as a society had become in the post-WWII era. I loved the sci-fi and horror influences included that were a huge part of pop culture at the time. I loved the acting, from great talents such as Aniston, McDonald, Harry Connick Jr and John Mahoney. I even liked the relatively annoying Hogarth after a while. And I ABSOLUTELY loved the character of the Iron Giant, who was sparsely voiced by a then-up-and-coming Vin Diesel. The character of the Giant displayed a brilliantly childlike naivete, and that in essence set the stage for his remarkable personality, from his adoration of comic book hero Superman to his distress of the death of a deer at the hands of hunters. His growth is the growth of the film, and director Brad Bird's ability to create something so alien and still infuse it with the necessary humanity to make him sympathetic to the audience is a sight to behold.

Bird also did a wonderful job recreating what it meant to live in small-town American during the fifties. In the tiny port of Rockwell, Maine, everything is small business and local industry. The rest of the world feels so far away, through the vast forests and over the mighty ocean. Yet schools show "educational" videos telling children to hide under their desks during nuclear attack, and bunkers for the people to hide in are in town. Fandom of science fiction is at an apex, and children dream what it would be like to see an alien creature or to possess powers like their favorite superhero. Last year's Super 8 had a very similar feel, but while it captured the small town life well enough, it didn't quite do enough on the Sci-fi side of things to make as much of an impact for me. Bird proves here - in one of his early films no less - that he has ample talent for a future in film directing, which he would prove was no fluke in future animated works The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and last year's live-action debut Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

The Iron Giant is a truly heartfelt, inspiring tale of what it means to define oneself and to have a soul, steered fantastically by Bird, his animators and his talented cast. Sure, some of the characters are a little cliched, and perhaps the film does a little too much parody for its own good, but that is entirely forgiven when Diesel's giant metal man defies his destructive nature and saves the day, proving himself the hero he could always be. And that's the real meaning of this excellent film; no matter what our nature, we can always be the good guy, can always do the best we can. Only we define who we are. And that's what makes The Iron Giant so great, and so worth watching.

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