When director Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption was released in theatres, it didn’t do that well at all, despite glowing reviews from all manner of critics. Chalk it up to poor marketing, heavy box-office competition, or just plain bad luck; this fine film just didn’t draw in the number of moviegoers that it ought to have. It was only once the film was released on video that its popularity with film-buffs attained cult status, sitting in the top five of the Internet Movie Database’s top 250.
Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant is this year’s Shawshank Redemption. I’m sure of it. This feature-length animated film from Warner Brothers practically tanked at the box-office. It must have been heartbreaking for all the talented people who obviously worked so hard on the film to see it flop. But I know that’s going to change, now that The Iron Giant is out on video and DVD. Why, it’s already ranked #89 on the IMDB’s top 250!
The basic premise for The Iron Giant comes from the 1968 children’s book written by Ted Hughes and illustrated by Andrew Davidson. In the book, a giant robot from outer space crash-lands on earth and befriends the small boy who finds him. Director Brad Bird takes a few liberties with the story, transporting the Iron Giant from a mythical, timeless period to 1957 Cold War America, and does so with great effect; his version of the story includes Sputnik, Red Menace anti-communist comics, ‘Duck and Cover’ filmstrips, beatniks and paranoid G-Men. All these touches make for a wonderful backdrop to a charming story of friendship, understanding and personal sacrifice.
While the story itself is a little by-the-numbers, it’s well-written and paced, and brilliantly voiced: a major casting coup here is Harry Connick Jr. as a junkyard-owning beatnik (I mean, who could be cooler), and Vin Diesel does a great job with the giant-of-few-words. But really, it’s the ride that counts here. And what a ride it is! The amazing animators behind The Iron Giant paint a lush and beautiful world, and the understated and graphic depiction of the characters ought to make Chuck Jones (who is famous for his take on Bugs Bunny and friends, and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas animated special) proud! This is some damn fine animation here folks. Ah, let’s just call a spade a spade, this is some amazing filmmaking. Solid story, great cast, and stunning production.
Another huge plus in my books: there’s not one Disney-style musical number in the whole film. This is an animated film, not a cartoon musical. And while I’ll admit that I liked Disney’s Aladdin and Hercules all the way through, and even tolerated the little musical numbers in Babe, most of the time any song-and-dance make me want to stare at the ground until they’ve finished. All this to say how refreshing it is to see an American animated film that sets its sights on telling a story. Period.
A half-hour ‘making of’ documentary is included on the DVD edition of The Iron Giant, and the enthusiasm of everyone from actors to animators is apparent. They all knew they were involved with something really good here, and it shows. The documentary is also interesting because it reveals that the film is an innovative combination of traditional 2D animation and 3D computer graphics. The character of the Iron Giant was created entirely in a computer, but is rendered in such a way that he seamlessly inhabits the hand-drawn and flat-coloured world of his costars. Yet he remains imbued with a perfect mechanical feel that must owe some of its essence to his computer origin.
The DVD includes both widescreen and pan-and-scan versions of the film. If you have a large-enough television to watch widescreen, I’d recommend doing so, so you can see everything that the talented people behind The Iron Giant have created to delight the eyes.
My only caveat about The Iron Giant is that some scenes may be somewhat intense for small children. But for everyone in the 6-plus crowd, I’d say you’re in for a real treat!