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IN SHORT: The first "must see" movie of the summer. . . and how many times do you see that pair of words in a CrankyCritic® review?
Long time readers know that Cranky is an admitted 'toon-head. They also know that he's been waiting for the one animated feature that could appeal to adults as well as children, without forcing us to sit through bad songs or a marketing machine's cute anthropomorphic, animated sidekicks. Princess Mononoke, coming in October, is definitely not for little kidlets. Disney's Tarzan came close, but didn't leave me with lump in my throat and a pounding in my chest as the end credits hit, as was the case with what I'll declare to be my now discovered Holy Grail of Animation. It is called The Iron Giant, based upon a book written by England's poet laureate Ted Hughes for his children, after the death of their mother, the poet Sylvia Plath. The Who's Pete Townshend adapted the story into rock opera format a number of years ago. This version is created under the eye of animator/director Brad Bird, who studied at Disney, did his teevee writing/directing/creative consulting work on The Simpsons, The Critic and King of the Hill and who has produced a feature length masterpiece his first time out.
Set in 1957, a time of sputnik and the political paranoia that went along with coming in Number Two, The Iron Giant confronts the prejudice of the time and wraps it all in a heavy duty layer of nostalgia -- for us old coots. Duck and Cover educational films, cheesy Sci-Fi Horror films, and Maypo commercials. For those too young to endure a thirty year trip in Professor Peabody's Wayback Machine, it is the story of nine year old Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) and his discovery of a "hundred foot tall" robot in the backwoods near Rockwell, Maine. Hogarth isn't the only person to have seen the Giant. Earl Stutz (M. Emmet Walsh), an old fisherman who ran his boat into the robot, has called in the Army to investigate this mysterious thing that may be from Outer Space -- it may be a Commie, for all we know. The rest of the town laughs at the old man, equating the sighting to pink elephants, but that doesn't explain why huge chunks are missing from their cars and tractors. They look like big bite marks, but nothing could be that big, right?
Hogarth is a mischievous kidlet. His single mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston) works as a waitress in town, and that leaves the kidlet with too much time on his hands. Once he saves the Giant from electrocution in the high power cables at the local power plant, the story offers echoes of the old "He followed me home. Can I keep him?" stories. In this case, Hogarth doesn't tell mom, nor does he tell the incredibly nosy investigator, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) who has rented the extra room across the hall. While Hogarth can teach the Giant to speak (Vin Diesel does the voice) and the ways of right and wrong -- straight from the pages of Action Comics, home of Superman -- he doesn't have enough metal around to feed the big guy. Enter our final player, Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) a beatnik junk dealer who creates art out of the scrap metal he picks up for a penny a pound, give or take. Dean hides the Giant from the U.S. Army, which has come to town at the behest of Kent Mansley, to destroy that which it fears.
That's the way it was in the '50s. That which we could not identify we assumed was the enemy. That which was the enemy we threatened to nuke. And all the while, the air was filled with beat and jazz and the beginnings of rock 'n' roll music.
Now, don't think the Giant is a warm and fuzzy, new age 90s in the 50s kind of robot. When Hogarth plays "Atomo" (based on the evil star of one of his comic books) and aims a toy blaster at the Giant, said Giant undergoes a metamorphosis that would make any Transformer jealous. Destructo-Rays, Plasma Energy balls, Vaporizing beams, almost anything you could have imagined in any 1950s sci-fi epic is at his beck and call, and only a quick witted Dean keeps Hogarth from meeting his Maker. More important than any other story element, this sequence is the key which makes The Iron Giant unique. Hogarth has taught, and the Giant has learned, that living beings have souls and anything with a soul can choose to be good or bad.
The Giant chooses to be Superman. Literally. The Army, led by Kent's boss General Shannon Rogard (John Mahoney), chooses nukes. I've left out a vital piece of the story which, if revealed, would steal from you the wonder that you will experience as you experience this most wonderful piece of work.
Deep down, The Iron Giant ain't no lightweight kidlet fare but it is totally accessible to the little kidlets sitting near Cranky and even more accessible to the little kidlet tucked inside all of adults. I've made no mention of the animation technique because The Iron Giant achieves what most animators can only dream of, a story so affecting and characters so real that you forget that you're watching a animated film.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Iron Giant, he would have paid...
If you remember the 50s, you're gonna love it. If you were into comic books or Sci-fi, you're gonna love it. If you're nostalgic for the "family values" orientation now applied to 50s teevee shows, you're gonna love it. If you've got little kids, you're gonna love watching them love it and then you'll get the tape so you can love it all by yourself.
Even the teen kidlets, who never like anything I do, will love it. But they'll never admit it <g>. End of gush.
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