The Themes and analysis series explores the major themes underpinning a movie or a TV show and also analyses how they function within the story and elevate it.
The Iron Giant is a 2D animated film that released 20 years ago in 1999. It was a box office failure. However, it received highly positive reviews (96 per cent at Rotten Tomatoes) and also established Brad Bird, who would go on to helm Ratatouille and The Incredibles film series for Pixar and Disney.
It is debatable as to why The Iron Giant did not click with audiences back then though it has acquired a cult status now. Perhaps the marketing and promotion was lacking or maybe the world was too much in love with the 3D animated techniques pioneered by Pixar.
The Iron Giant was not a Disney film. It was produced by Warner Bros Animation, the studio behind the Looney Tunes. Warner Bros’ then-president Lorenzo di Bonaventura was quoted by USA Today, “People always say to me, ‘Why don’t you make smarter family movies?’ The lesson is, Every time you do, you get slaughtered.”
Regardless of its failure, The Iron Giant is, as Lorenzo said, a smart family movie. The story is heartwarming and simple enough for a child to understand and yet also is thematically rich and asks some interesting, intellectually stimulating questions. It is also a superhero movie in a way, as it features a superpowered being troubled with things like mortality and not giving into one’s darker inclinations.
First, a bit of the plot. The Iron Giant is about a young kid in a fictional coastal town called Rockwell of Maine, US and his unlikely friendship with a giant robot who eats metal as food. It isn’t made explicitly clear, but the robot has sentience and may well be a nascent lifeform. The film is set in the early days of the Cold War in 1957, shortly after the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to successfully go into space. There was fear and paranoia among Americans, who feared, among other things, that the USSR would drop nuclear bombs on them using their then superior space tech — NASA was yet to come into existence.
So when a giant killer robot crash landed in a coastal town, people feared the worst. After scaring the daylights out of a sailor, the giant reached a power grid and tried to eat the metal there, electrocuting himself. He was watched by 9-year-old Hogarth Hughes, who turned off the power switch, shutting down the grid and saving the Iron Giant.
The two develop a friendship when Hogarth discovers the giant is friendly. He goes to great pains to ensure he remains hidden from the authorities and places him in a scrapyard (“All the food you can eat!”). But due to his immense size, the giant is spotted by a few people and a federal government agent Kent Mansley is dispatched to the town.
Mansley is ultimately successful in bringing the army to the town, and commands the giant to be nuked. When the giant realises the entire town will be wiped off the face of the earth, he flies into space and collides with the missile, presumably dying.
The movie uses its setting perfectly. There is something alluring about 2D animation — something more than just nostalgia — especially if enough care is given to the visuals. The environments are vibrant and there is great attention to detail here.
One of the primary and more obvious themes of the film is identity — in the sense that one can be whatever they want to be. “You are what you choose to be,” says Hogarth at one point.
The Iron Giant, though of unknown origin, is clearly alien and was built as a war machine. He has an inbuilt defence mechanism that activates whenever somebody points a gun at him, even as a joke. The childlike giant has a face-off with morality when he witnesses the death of a deer. He is told by Hogarth that guns kill. And the giant doesn’t have to be a weapon he was clearly designed to be. He can chart his own destiny. He can be whatever he wants. He can even be Superman.
The kid shows him how Superman, like the giant, came from outer space and grew up to be a kind person who saves the world from evil. Although the kid witnesses the giant’s subconscious defence mechanism when he points a toy gun towards him as part of a game, he is firm in his innocent and optimistic belief that a weapon like him too can be a force for good. In a moving scene, the Iron Giant says, “I am not a gun.”
There is also the fear of the “other” that the film brings into focus. Scared people hate anything they do not understand. One well-known example is the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century. The citizens of Rockwell see a 100-foot-tall robot and think it is a Soviet killing machine or something to that effect. Though honestly speaking, I would not blame a 1950s’ American of being scared at first glance of something alien, invincible and huge.