As a movie fan, the one question you are asked more than anything else is, “what is your favorite movie?” For myself, as well as many other people I know, it’s a simple question lacking a simple answer. How do you sift through the hundreds upon hundreds of films you’ve seen to pick out just one as your “favorite”? The problem is, this answer – honest though it may be – frustrates people. People want to hear one movie, preferably one they’re familiar with, so they can judge whether or not you have “good taste” in movies.
So a couple years ago, I decided to give in. Rather than prattle on about how choosing a single favorite movie is an impossible task, I decided to give people what they want. I decided to choose a stand-in for my favorite film. So I set out to choose a film that represented everything I love about cinema; something emblematic of my tastes, my beliefs, and the things I value. My “favorite” movie had to be, in some small way, a reflection of myself.
The movie I chose was The Iron Giant.
Brad Bird’s first motion picture is an absolute, real-deal masterpiece. Forget that it’s a cartoon, forget that it’s ostensibly a kids’ movie, forget that it’s about a boy trying to hide the existence of a 60-foot robot voiced by Vin Diesel. Underneath these trappings of genre and form lies a film that has as much honesty, as much craft, and as much thematic integrity as any movie made for grown ups. The Iron Giant is among the best movies ever made, and those who might dismiss it based on these superficial qualities only reveal their ignorance.
Part of what’s so great about the film is that it has a lot on its mind, but it never allows itself to lose focus on the story by being preachy. I see a lot of critics who look at the scene where the Giant witnesses hunters killing a deer and say that the movie is about gun control, but it’s not exactly. It addresses gun control, and it has a very clear stance on the subject, but the film isn’t about that, nor is it about the importance of representation in media (despite a similarly pointed scene in which Hogarth shows the Giant his comic books), or the fearful and often violent response we have to foreign peoples. These ideas are supporting text, they round out the philosophy of film, but they are not its core essence. The real, central conceit of The Iron Giant is something much more simple; something eternal and universal. It’s about fighting against our instinct to lash out at those who attack us, about how compassion and empathy are more powerful than revenge and retribution, and how acceptance and understanding can forge powerful, eternal bonds. It’s all these other arguments layered on top of each other in the margins, supporting the central thesis, that make the film so thematically rich and compelling.
It’s also a film that is as full of optimism and wonder as the best of Spielberg’s work. From the opening moments up in the stars to the emotionally rousing final shot, it’s a film that makes you remember what it’s like to be nine-years-old and feel like the universe is full of adventures and excitement just waiting to be found. One of my favorite sequences of the movie is Hogarth, armed with a B.B. gun, setting out into the woods to find the invaders from Mars that ate his TV antenna. The scene plays out as a beautiful series of reveals – giant footprints, uprooted trees, a whole swath of the forest carved out in the shape of a giant figure – with Hogarth slowly realizing the enormity of what he’s stumbled into, culminating in his first real encounter with the Giant at the power station. It’s a moment that’s just the right amount of scary, with the Giant depicted as this massive, single-minded force, not even recognizing that Hogarth is there, yet when he gets tangled in the power lines we feel his pain. What was scary and unfeeling a moment before has suddenly been rendered helpless, and it’s Hogarth’s decision to save the Giant that is THE lynchpin moment of the whole movie.
A lesser film wouldn’t have done this; a lesser film might have just had Hogarth’s second encounter with the Giant be the first time the two characters meet, but this moment is crucial because it represents Hogarth making a decision that sets in motion the events of the rest of the film. For some crazy reason, it seems that a lot of screenwriters (or perhaps it’s a lot of studio executives) don’t like characters that make decisions. They like characters that stumble into a story accidentally, that just react to a bunch of things happening without having any agency of their own. But we, as an audience, NEED characters to make decisions. We need those powerful instances of cause and effect that determine the direction of the story. It creates meaning and purpose, and makes it feel like the story and the characters in it matter and are more than just an anesthetic to keep us sedated for 90 minutes. In this one moment, this one decision to either save the life of this creature that could very well be dangerous, not only is the story set in motion, but we also learn a lot about who our lead character is as a person. We learn that Hogarth is the type of person who will let empathy win out over his own safety, and setting up the trait here is crucial to understanding his actions in the later parts of the film.
Of course, none of this would work if it wasn’t backed by solid acting, and this is a film that features some damn great performances. The vocal performances are top notch, and I certainly don’t want to short sell the actors who do really terrific work on this film, but it’s the physical acting – the performances drawn by the animators – that really make this film come alive. Even extremely minor characters, often characters who lack a single line of dialogue are positively dripping with personality. The guy sitting in the diner at the beginning of the film, silently mouthing the words of the newspaper he’s reading; Hogarth’s classmates arguing about what it was that crashed into the ocean; even the intentionally bad performances of the actors in the horror movie Hogarth is watching on TV, they’re all brilliant pieces of animation.
That’s not even mentioning the tremendous work done by the main cast. Go through the movie and watch the scenes where we meet each character for the first time and look for the little nuances and performance ticks that tell you everything you need to know about these characters. Kent Mansley’s introduction is the perfect example of this, with his back perfectly straight, chest raised, and every step exaggerated to convey confidence, suddenly dissolving into a frantic, hunched over coward, flailing his arms wildly after finding the bite taken out of his car. In one moment, without the need for any dialogue, we understand exactly who Kent Mansley is and are prepared for the actions the character will take throughout the film. There are all kinds of moments like this: the scene where the Giant starts learning how to act human, Hogarth on an espresso-fueled tirade about his troubles at school, and the jaw-dropping “hand underfoot” sequence. I could go on to list all the moments of terrific animation, but I’d end up just describing every last scene in the film. It sounds like hyperbole, but I’m being 100% serious when I don’t think there’s a single frame of this movie that’s not bursting with fantastic performance animation.
It’s really the strength of these performances that draw you into the world of the film, opening you up to the beautiful story is has to tell. I got to see the movie today for the first time ever in a theater (on a gorgeous 35mm print at New Beverly), and from the moment it began I was completely enraptured. It’s a movie I’ve seen dozens of times, but each time those opening moments suck me in as though I’ve never seen it before, and this time it was all the more powerful because I could feel all the people around me responding in exactly the same way. It’s a film that demands a strong emotional response – whether it’s the elation of watching the Giant take flight, or the sheer devastation of Hogarth’s final three words to the Giant – and getting to go on that emotional journey with a room full of strangers in my favorite theater in the world epitomized everything I love about the movies.
The Iron Giant is a movie that too many people (including myself) missed when it was released in theaters, but it’s thankfully gone on to become a classic in its own right, accumulating a passionate group of fans in the 16 years since its release. If you haven’t already, you should seek this film out immediately because it’s really something special. It’s a beautiful film with a lot of smart things to say and incredibly rich characters with which to say them, and it’s my favorite movie of all time.