Film: THE IRON GIANT: Hey kids, get a little iron in your soul - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

Film: THE IRON GIANT: Hey kids, get a little iron in your soul

The Big Picture; THE IRON GIANT (U) DIRECTOR: BRAD BIRD STARRING: THE VOICES OF HARRY CONNICK JR, VIN DIESEL, JAMES GAMMON 86 MINS

Now here's a thing: kids like to watch other kids being compassionate. Call it armchair emotion, call it rank hypocrisy, but the sort of children who push classmates' heads down the toilet and then flush the chain are still likely to go "ah!" when they see Elliot cherishing ET, or Pete petting his dragon.

Warner Brothers' The Iron Giant certainly aims to press similar buttons. It tells the story of Hogarth, a sensitive, fatherless American boy whose instinct to attack a huge, rampaging metal object does a 180-degree turn when he realises that the creature is in pain. The titular giant, trapped in a mess of spaghetti-hoop-like pylons, actually looks as if he's being crucified, making Hogarth's act of goodwill (he switches off the current) appear extra pious. And the pair's subsequent friendship, which includes Hogarth teaching the giant - all moon-white eyes and endearingly rigid mouth - how to talk, is a hymn to soft, nuzzly feelings.

So you may be surprised to learn that this cartoon is based on Ted Hughes's The Iron Man. The poet's 1968 story does have a little boy called Hogarth, and a mysterious Iron Man, but the kid doesn't teach the Iron Man anything and their relationship soon peters out. Hughes not only denies youngsters the urge to play parent, but the usual identification point. No such challenge here. Also missing is the tongue-prickling poetry - those vivid descriptions of the Iron Man's dinners ("the Iron Man chewed thoughtfully at this favourite titbit, a juicy, spicy old gas-stove") that make you want to try licking a chunk of metal yourself. The Iron Giant enjoys his food, but he's no gourmand.

What the film does have is something special all of its own - a take on Fifties America that is quite dazzlingly sophisticated. The film's director and writer, Brad Bird (who cut his teeth on The Simpsons and King of the Hill), has chosen to down-date Hughes's story, setting it in 1957 Maine, and in an aptly named town called Rockwell (after Norman) where the prevailing concerns of the community are Reds overtaking them in the space race and/or creeping under any beds. Their views are represented by Kent Mansley, a hawkish government agent. As he informs Hogarth darkly: "There's a foreign satellite orbiting the earth and all that that implies."

Someone else in Rockwell is obsessed with outsiders, but in this case because he thinks he is one. Dean (as in Moriarty) is a hip cat; he has posters of Kerouac on his wall, a yin-yang globe on his bathrobe and a habit of saying things like: "we kooks have got to stay together!" Cartoons don't normally dabble in "trendy" characters, so Dean - neurotic, witty and Elvis Presley-handsome - is something of a revelation. Cartoonist Robert Crumb admitted he had a crush on Bugs Bunny, but this is the first animated figure I've ever fancied. By day, Dean (voiced by Harry Connick Jr) runs a scrap-iron yard, which is how Hogarth and the Iron Giant come to befriend him. At night he turns the scrap into sculptures. "It's funny," he muses, more to himself than Hogarth, "people will pay money for scrap iron, but once I turn it into art I can't give it away."

That Kent and Dean are Hogarth's two polar-opposite "father" figures is clear. Hogarth, however, proves more complex. One-part Bart Simpson (he shares Bart's love of MAD comics), two-parts Lisa, Hogarth is a latch- key kid, forced to bring himself up while his mother (Jennifer Aniston) works in the local diner. He is thus able to live on a diet of tooth-rotting Twinkies, B-movies and comics, and this is where Bird's influence - his mini-thesis on trash culture and the imagination - makes itself felt.

We assume that with the arrival of the Iron Giant these sort of junk- culture pleasures will quickly make way for more organic, innocent ones. But no. Hogarth's dreams and chatter are endlessly informed by comics or TV. When he and Iron Giant are flying through the sky, he encourages the giant to put his arm out - "try doing it like Superman". And it's catching - the Iron Giant himself decides that he wants to be Superman.

That's how kids work. In the same way, Hogarth's vocabulary changes almost as soon as he meets Dean. "Don't wig out," he tells the giant, adopting the lingo of his beatnik pal. Even his big, tear-jerking final message to the metal man - "you are what you choose to be" - is an arty-farty line he's picked up from Dean. One accusation constantly levelled against millennium culture is that it has no new ideas. Bird makes a virtue of this, pointing up the basic human need to copy.

This puts Dean in a whole new light. He is desperate to be seen as different. Through his "art" he wants to transcend trash (literally and metaphorically). At one point, the Iron Giant accidentally chews a piece of Dean's work, then delicately (and most apologetically) tries to bend it back to its original state. As it happens, this attempt to "go backwards" creates a new, far more interesting shape. "It's good!" exclaims an astonished Dean, having finally got it.

The film itself is testament to what can be achieved by gobbling up everything from the past. Offering acupuncture for the eyes, it's full of the pinks, oranges and super-sharp angles familiar from Ren & Stimpy cartoons, as well as source material such as the credits for TV's Bewitched or the background paintings created by Warner Brothers artists such as Maurice Noble and Philip De Guard. Bigger names have also been embroiled. At night, Dean's turquoise warehouse has three glowing, gold rectangles where the door and windows should be. Just as in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, colours themselves are endowed with feeling. The action sequences in the Maine forest work, too. When the Iron Giant jumps into a lake, causing jubilant- green waves to send the world rushing backwards, we could be back in the overwhelming, heart-stopping world of Bambi or Snow White.

Of course, Bird doesn't get everything right, especially towards the end when the Iron Giant is finally cornered by Kent and the US army. Where Ted Hughes' anti-war message was subtle, this young man positively beats us around the head with the idea that killing is bad.

What's gone before, however, isn't so easily erased. One particular exchange sticks in the mind. The Iron Giant, flipping through Hogarth's comics, espies a cartoon called Atomo. "Oh, he's a metal menace," says Hogarth blithely. "He's not like you, you're a good guy." A few scenes later though, much to the giant's horror, Hogarth addresses him as "Atomo" - for the purposes of a game, you understand.

That kids are amoral little creatures - effortlessly switching between compassion and cruelty - is one of many "truths" you can take away from this film. The Iron Giant can do happy and shiny, but it's also got a sharp and rusty edge.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week