The film opens with a shot of Sputnik orbiting the earth, before panning to show a meteorite heading towards the Earth. The camera then follows the meteorite, overtakes it, then shows us a storm in progress, during which we get our first glimpse of the Giant in question. Within this first two or three minutes of the film, we see the basic themes of the film and its many technical merits. Sputnik very clearly represents the paranoia of the period in which the film is set, 1950s America, and it is this that drives much of the drama of the film. No one in the film truly knows where the Giant has come from or what his purpose is, least of all the Giant himself. Whilst some of the characters accept the giant, others are suspicious of him and believe that he must be a Communist weapon. Chief amongst these characters is Kent Mansley, a low-level government agent who believes so fervently in the government propaganda and the fear of the time that he orders a nuclear missile to be fired at the Giant in the final moments of the film. Despite the fact that he is standing more or less directly next to the Giant when he orders the strike.
The animation throughout is really very impressive with most of it being hand-animated, an art that has very rapidly disappeared in the last 8 years. The whole world and the characters in it feel vibrant and alive in the same way that old Disney films used to feel. The technical prowess of the film is even more impressive when we consider the fact that it was made for only $48,000,000, which is quite a small amount of money for an American animated film. The film also had a very low budget for marketing, a factor which contributed to the relative failure of the film at the box office. However, what matters is not the budget or even the quality of the animation, but the emotional impact of the story.
For a long time now I've believed that there is something seriously wrong with me, that there's something in my subconscious that is horribly askew. My problem? I cry at cartoons. I don't know what it is but there is something about them that really gets to me. Sporting events, heartwarming news stories, family funerals, none of them affect me quite as much as the end of the ''Mother Simpson'' episode of the Simpsons or Sully seeing Boo again at the end of Monsters Inc. Within this specific, some may say perverse, emotional problem of mine, Brad Bird occupies a special place. He is one of the few directors who has managed to not only make me cry but also have me openly weeping whilst watching their films. And these have all been watching cartoons! For the record, those moments are the instant when Syndrome shoots down the plane in the Incredibles, making Bob Parr believe that his family have been killed, when Anton Ego eats the meal in Ratatouille (those of you in the UK will have to wait until October to experience this but it really is something very special) and in the Iron Giant. Towards the end of the film, the army fires a nuclear weapon which is intended to destroy the Giant but which will also destroy the village he is in. Rather than see all those around him die, the Giant flies up towards the missile, intending to impact with it before it can do any harm. The look of serenity of his face before the impact and the way he says ''Superman'' gets me every time. I've watched the film three or four times in quick succession recently and it never ceases to make me tear up. It's a really beautiful moment which more or less encapsulates what is wonderful about this film.
So powerful is the emotional impact of the ending, that whilst watching the Iron Giant for the first time, I willed the Giant to somehow survive. I was literally crying out for an ending which I would otherwise consider to be sappy or something of a cheat. Bare in mind that I'm someone who believes that Amelie, quite possibly the happiest film ever made, would be improved markedly by having both main characters die at the end. Imagine the sheer sense of happiness and relief I feel whenever I see that the film does bring the Giant back at an end. Admittedly he's in pieces, but he slowly rebuilds himself and hints at future films. These have not so far appeared and I'm unsure about whether or not I want them to. On the one hand, I'd love to see more of these characters and see what other adventures they might have, yet the Iron Giant on its own stands as a pretty much perfect piece of work.
Maybe it's just me and my bizarre fascination with animation, but for me The Iron Giant is one of the finest animated films ever made. It's great looking, fabulously paced and has genuine emotional resonance to it. It's also quite strange in that it is one of the very few, non-propagandist, animated films that explicitly deals with Communist paranoia, and that's got to be worth something. You missed it at the cinema but I urge every person who reads this to seek out The Iron Giant, it's a real gem.