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The Iron Giant (1999)

Warner Home Video
Blu-ray Disc Released: 9/6/2016

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Review by Sydny Long, Posted on 9/4/2016

What is it about hand-drawn and stop-motion animation that alienates the movie-going public? Have people become so anesthetized by the rubbery familiarity of CGI that they have lost their appreciation for the breath-taking fluidity of two-dimensional art or the unique, crooked beauty of stop-motion animatronics? Laika Studios--an artistic company that has been largely overlooked by both critics and audiences--released their fourth stop-motion-animated film this summer, a creative feature that received praise from critics and moviegoers alike. However, the film's box office numbers failed to match its glowing reviews, which prompts the aforementioned question. Why do audiences so ardently avoid non-CGI animated features? This is far from a new trend; since the release of Pixar's Toy Story, CGI movies have crushed more traditional fare in the box office. While the snubbing of Laika's daring, distinctive movies (particularly ParaNorman) is inexcusable, perhaps the most egregious example of this trend was the box office disappointment The Iron Giant. Though the Brad Bird-directed feature was lauded by critics, it underperformed significantly and would have been forgotten had it not been rescued from obscurity by home video. How could a movie so beloved by critics do so terribly in the box office? Was it simply dismissed by a persnickety audience? Or was this iron giant just not destined to be a box office giant?

The film takes place in 1957, shortly after the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik. Nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) lives with his widowed mother Annie (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) in the coniferous town of Rockwell, Maine, where Cold War tensions trench conversations and classroom lessons in a quiet, white-knuckled paranoia. Hogarth, however, is preoccupied with a strange crash in the forest near his home, where he discovers a giant robot--the Iron Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel). Hogarth's attempts to hide the Giant from his mother are thwarted by Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), an obnoxious government agent who becomes obsessed with proving the robot's existence. With Mansley constantly breathing down his neck, Hogarth seeks the help of local beatnik artist, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.), who begrudgingly agrees to hide the Giant in his junkyard. As tensions mount and Mansley resorts to extremely unethical means to find the robot, Hogarth teaches the Iron Giant how to talk and how to feel. When the Giant's existence is discovered and his capacity for destruction harnessed by government officials, the Giant must rise above his programming and use his newfound morals to make his own decisions about what he will do with his power.

While Brad Bird hasn't helmed quite as many movies as the other member of Pixar's core creative team (John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and Andrew Stanton), his few films are very distinct. He has a remarkable penchant for capturing a strong feeling with his sets and ideas, an aura that keeps his movies entertaining even when they start to drag. The Incredibles feels like a superhero movie (due mostly to the striking blues and reds the film is animated with); Ratatouille feels like an art movie set in Paris (the soft, buttery lighting and lilting score adds an astonishing amount of Parisian ambience). And The Iron Giant feels like a Cold War-era film, from the toy guns to the ultra-macho government agent. Even the fluid, crisp animation and engaging character designs are strangely nostalgic.

This feeling, however, is merely the foundation for a richly-realized movie. The "boy and his ____" story might be a tired trope, but Hogarth and the Giant are both so well-characterized when they meet that their relationship feels fresh and interesting. While their friendship is definitely the heart of the film, it is also the basis on which other subplots are built, which keeps the story's evolution organic. As a result, the layered plot feels mature and complex rather than cluttered, and each subplot is given the opportunity to evolve at its own pace before everything is tied together at the end.

On a more superficial layer though, this is simply a good movie. The characters are fun and refreshingly three-dimensional: Hogarth is hilariously kinetic, and his child-like mannerisms are funny rather than tiresome (especially when he laments that every kid could skip a grade like he did if they just "did the stupid homework"); Kent Mansley begins as a cartoonish, over-the-top depiction of fifties masculinity, then devolves into a desperate coward who isn't above chloroforming and psychologically torturing children. But it's the Giant himself who wins the crowd over. His puppyish behavior of mimicking whatever he sees and loyally following Hogarth around is charming, as is his willingness to play pretend. However, the Iron Giant also has to cope with his fundamental purpose (he was designed to be a weapon and is armed with thousands of guns) and learn about the less palatable aspects of life (such as death and cruelty), which makes him all the more sympathetic and makes the film's finale all the more heart-wrenching.

Why don't two-dimensional films like this attract bigger audiences? It's hard to say. Which is a shame, because The Iron Giant is an incredibly-made film that uses amazing animation, strong writing, and a dedicated cast and crew to tell a beautiful story about a boy and his robot. But if this film hadn't been two-dimensional and had been manufactured to make a huge profit, perhaps it wouldn't be as touching and mature as it is now. CGI is marketed to be consumed by the whole family without having to analyze what's happening onscreen. The Iron Giant, however, takes story-telling risks and asks the audience to stop and ponder the beautiful moral that ties the story together: We are what we choose to be. And for the movies that choose to use unconventional animation to tell their stories, that moral is what keeps the art of animation alive in a world ruled by money.

The Iron Giant is a great Vin Diesel movie as we never have to look at him on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look very good and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is excellent and the picture shows a great amount of depth, as the multi-plane animation looks great here. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 5.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The track really shows off some nice surround and stereo effects. The action sequences bring a wealth of detailed surround effects and the subwoofer really gets a workout from the Giant walking and from explosions. It should be noted that the Disc contains two versions of the film: Original with a running time of 1:26:39 and Signature which runs at 1:29:58.

The Iron Giant Signature Edition Blu-ray Disc is stuffed with extras, some new and some carried over from previous releases. They are as follows:

The new entries are an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Brad Bird, Head of Animation Tony Fucile, Story Department Head Jeff Lynch and Animation Supervisor (Giant) Steven Markwoski, along with "The Giant's Dream" (56 minutes).

From 2003, we get: "Deleted Scenes with Introductions by Brad Bird; "Teddy Newton: The X Factor"; "Duck and Cove Sequence"; "The Voice of The Iron Giant"; "The Score"; "Behind the Armor"; "Motion Gallery"; and "Vintage Easter Eggs".

The remaining extras are: "Brad Bird Trailer"; "Signature Edition Trailer"; "The Making of The Iron Giant"; "The Salt Mines"; and "Hand Drawn".

Review Copyright 2016 by Mike Long