During a decade aptly termed both The Space Age and The Atomic Age, there was permeating fear of alien things falling from space. In Brad Bird’s 1999 animated feature “The Iron Giant,” set in the late 50’s, a massive robot lands in coastal New England to be discovered the film’s young protagonist Hogarth Hughes. The film’s portrayal of Cold War America tells essentially the same story — that of a boy playing with weapons.
I suggest however that you view the film’s retro references as nostalgic revelry rather than historical commentary — touches of a bygone era are beautifully rendered here: ‘The Feds’ run around in trench coats and fedoras. Beatniks explored the definition of art and kids subscribed to Mad Magazine. And there, up in the night sky, Sputnik circles the Earth! The Cold War serves the film most effectively as a source of atmosphere, to shelter the story within what is portrayed as an earlier, ‘simpler’ time.
This nostalgia however is tempered by the film’s noticeably modern treatment of animation. I selected The Iron Giant for this first review because although a cartoon, the film holds strikingly little for children. In the dying age of hand-drawn animation, The Iron Giant fits into a late 90’s trend of animated films which aspired to realism. In stark contrast to Bird’s later Pixar movies, which revel in their animation technology, this feature attempts to forget the conventions of its medium. The result is a sparse and barren style which tests animation’s limits of narrative rather than artistry.
Such restrain has created a landscape which is thoroughly plain. Yet it is a plainness which allows room for movement and for action, for the immense, lumbering motions of swiping down forests, and extreme, diverging portrayals of both augustness and minutiae. The robot itself, a dark form lit up only by its eyes, is essentially a great hulking soul untethered by details. There is a bewildering, gargantuan power in the film’s simplicity.
Through this narrow lens of nostalgic simplicity, The Iron Giant portrays a postwar America so introverted that the greatest menace is ‘the Feds’ and the threat of ‘an army’ referred to our own army. Now, in writing these retrospective reviews, I will ask myself not whether a movie is worth watching but whether the movie is worth watching today and by us, whether a film is worth rediscovering. This movie is. “The Iron Giant” offers nothing new and therein lies its appeal; it allows us to retreat to a story so historically placed that even its portrayals of war and weaponry are warm and comforting.