Whilst Walt Disney’s name is synonymous with the early days of animation, Snow White being the first feature length cartoon, his creations were often rivalled by the work of another ambitious studio. Specialising in shorts, Warner Brothers created a zany roster of some of the most beloved characters in movie history; Daffy Duck, Wile E Coyote, Tom & Jerry and Bugs Bunny have all proved iconic creations. Yet the once proud studio failed to adapt with the times. Having closed doors for three years from 1969 the studio had lost its way; Warner Brothers could not find their place in the film market and, aside from a few half hearted attempts at big screen features, ultimately settled into television production. It has now been just over ten years since the last fully animated theatrical release produced solely by Warner Brothers. The film was Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. As far as swan songs go The Iron Giant, based on a Ted Hughes book, is pretty much perfect – by some way the studio’s finest hour.
Set in 1957, the tale centres around the jovial young Hogarth Hughes whose spritely nature is almost as inexhaustible as his curiosity. One night, whilst his mother (Jennifer Aniston) is working, Hogarth sneaks from his home to follow a strange noise outside which leads him to a path of broken fences, trampled ground and uprooted trees. The path of destruction follows to the most fantastical of sights – the hundred foot tall Iron Giant (Vin Diesel) chomping away on metal at a near by power station. The two strike up a friendship although Hogarth, quite rightly, realises that not everyone would be quite as tolerant of this peaceful giant. With the help of the local beatnik scrap dealer Dean (Harry Connick Jr), Hogarth tries his best to hide the Giant from a government agent (Christopher McDonald) who is convinced the sightings of a gargantuan robot must have something to do with Rockwell or the Soviet Union. Hogarth also must not let his mom find out – she wouldn’t allow him even a pet squirrel as they make too much noise.
The Iron Giant constitutes a remarkable achievement standing out from the pack upon its release in 1999; a year widely regarded as one of the richest in recent cinematic history. At once the film is a science fiction period piece playing on cold war paranoia, the spectre of a nuclear holocaust is a recurring concern amongst the authority figures, and a feel good family film. The Cold War parable sits neatly alongside slapstick humour, jokes about the effects of caffeine and, of course, a hugely emotive conclusion which promotes tolerance, sacrifice and understanding whilst never preaching or succumbing to emotional manipulation. Animated with simple delicacy, a combination of hand drawn and computer rendered additions, The Iron Giant places the emphasis on a succinct, whimsical tale making sure substance triumphs over style.
Although a box office failure upon release, the film recouped only half of its $48 million budget, The Iron Giant was, and remains, a critical success and helped launch the career of debut feature director Brad Bird. Having graduated from The Simpsons, Bird has seen his post-Giant career sky rocket under the tutelage of John Lasseter at Pixar. The Incredibles and Ratatouille were both huge box office smashes and confirmed the keen eye for aesthetic detail, character and humour Bird displayed on The Iron Giant were no fluke. Unfortunately for Warner Brothers the opposite is true; having stumbled upon a sublime gem of a movie the studio have never come close, nor have they tried, to make a film this magical since.