Stephen King's 1981 treatise on the nature of fear in film and literature -- Danse Macabre
-- opens with a rose-tinted nostalgic recollection of the events of October 4, 1957. That was the day the 10-year-old King, along with the rest of the world, learned that the Soviets had beaten the U.S. into space with the earth satellite Sputnik. Six years before an assassin's bullet would shatter the gates of Camelot, the world practiced shuddering to a halt with this, the official beginning of the space race. It was a time of tremendous fear, paranoia, and anxiety, but also one of terrific cooperation and determination, of America and the world coming to terms with an uncertain future and the specter of The Bomb. The Iron Giant,
director Brad Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanlies' gorgeously animated adaptation of British poet laureate Ted Hughes' 1968 children's book The Iron Man,
begins on that same day, with nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Marienthal) and the townspeople of Rockwell, Maine, staring raptly upward at Sputnik's flashing blip in the heavens. The satellite is just a precursor of things to come, though, as news tapers in from a local fisherman who claims to have seen a giant metal alien of some sort crash just outside of town. Intrigued, Hogarth sets out to find the metal man, following a swath cut through the woods by gargantuan feet. Forget Fox Mulder -- this kid really
wants to believe, and it pays off when he finds the five-story giant (Diesel) trapped in the spitting lines of a remote power station. Hogarth frees the metal man and wins a friend for life, just as the Feds show up. The less said about the plot of The Iron Giant
the better, I think. It's a film packed to bursting with golden nuggets of surprise, humor, and pathos, though it bears noting that the film runs a track vaguely similar to Spielberg's E.T..
That's not to say in any way that Bird's film is a simulacrum; both films owe a great deal to the classic sci-fi films of the Fifties, notably William Cameron Menzies' Invaders From Mars
and Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space
(both 1953 and both referenced in Bird's film). Beatniks, monster movies, and Mad
magazine all pop up in The Iron Giant,
but it's the film's genuine, warm heart that sees it through to its breathtaking stand-up-and-cheer finale. McCanlies' empathetic script owes as much to Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling as it does to Cold War jitters and Civil Defense Radio. And if its top-notch story weren't enough, The Iron Giant
also boasts some spectacular animation, a combination of classic two-dimensional processes and CGI for the giant himself that's outright spellbinding. Add to that Michael Kamen's lush, earthy score, and The Iron Giant
is clearly the single best, the single coolest
(to borrow from Harry Knowles) animated film in a great while. It's like a box of Cracker Jacks with 100 prizes and one peanut.