Old Friends

24 Years Ago, This Animated Underdog Walked So Pixar Could Run

Without the Iron Giant, the world of kids' movies would be much, much darker.

Originally Published: 
The Iron Giant
Warner Bros
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On August 6, 1999, the only problem with The Iron Giant was that no one knew it was playing in theaters. Although at the time of its release, The Iron Giant basically failed, it has, over the years, earned the respect it rightfully deserved as a modern masterpiece of storytelling and animation. It’s so good, that it’s in Fatherly’s top 15 on our list of 100 Best Kids Movies Ever. But, it was almost entirely lost to time.

So many factors stood in the way of The Iron Giant being the success it should have been right away, but its long journey towards completion was even more perilous. It’s an origin story wrapped in its own metaphors, and maybe that’s why the message remains so powerful nearly twenty-five years later. You may love the movie, but the story behind how it was made may not be common knowledge.

What is The Iron Giant all about?

When it comes to its story, The Iron Giant isn’t your traditional animated movie from the ’90s. It lands closer to a 1950’s sci-fi film than it does Beauty & The Beast. Here’s the elevator-pitch version of the plot: Set in 1957 during an era of anxiety and panic, nine-year-old Hogarth stumbles upon a towering mechanical giant from space in the woods of Maine. The pair form a kinship, and Hogarth helps his new friend figure out the world around him while discovering who The Giant thinks he is, and what he really is. When the U.S. authorities find out about a lumbering monster wreaking havoc in the area, they send agent Kent Mansley to investigate, leading to a showdown of epic proportions.

Jennifer Aniston’s first voiceover role in a movie came via The Iron Giant, playing the stressed single mom to young Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal in his first animated role ever). Hogarth keeps his new companion a secret from her through the help of Beatnik, who owns the junkyard where his robot feasts. Harry Connick Jr. played this hepcat artist, Dean - the perfect foil to Christopher McDonald’s insecure and psychotic federal agent, Kent Mansley. And who could forget the bassy growls of Vin Diesel as the titular Iron Giant, a performer who just had his first taste of the big time one year earlier in Saving Private Ryan, but far from his eventual stardom in The Fast and The Furious or Guardians of The Galaxy franchises.

Before Brad Bird became the mastermind behind Pixar classics like The Incredibles (2004), The Iron Giant was his chance to show what he could do as a director. Armed with a ragtag staff, Bird managed to leap over hurdle after hurdle to make this film happen. But before the movie adaptation came to be, The Iron Giant itself had a humbler start three decades earlier.

A Giant Searches For A Home

“Taller than a house, the Iron Man stood at the top of the cliff, on the very brink, in the darkness”. This is part of the opening paragraphs of The Iron Man, the book by British author Ted Hughes that inspired The Iron Giant. A Poet Laureate, regarded as one of the best British authors of his lifetime, Hughes was also the husband of famed American writer, Sylvia Plath. In the wake of his wife’s suicide in 1963, Hughes created The Iron Man as a bedtime story to soothe his mourning children, eventually turning it into a manuscript and publishing it five years later.

Many of the traits of the massive automaton found in the book remained in the movie. His spotlight-like eyes sitting atop a head “shaped like a dustbin,” his hunger for machinery, and his ability to reassemble his parts as needed were all integral to the character seen onscreen. Likewise, Hogarth befriends him, but this time the U.S. Army isn’t the only threat. It’s a giant cosmic “Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon” Star Spirit who the Iron Man battles against, but the two settle their differences and offer a message of peace for the townspeople and readers alike.

We can thank Marvel Comics for an important piece of this story. When The Iron Man landed on American shores, it was retitled The Iron Giant to avoid confusion between this towering colossus and Tony Stark. Marvel went full circle in 2003, releasing a comic called Sentinel which was their version of The Iron Giant story. Instead of the space-borne robot, Marvel replaced the metal titan with a re-programmed former mutant-hunting Sentinel who befriends a small-town tween.

Who is the Iron Giant? The Who!

The Iron Giant was extremely popular with children and adults alike, immediately becoming a British sci-fi best-seller. While it has zero connection to Black Sabbath’s famous “Iron Man” song, it shares a link with another British rocker – Pete Townshend. A frontman for The Who, Townshend’s love of the book led him to craft a concept album about it after the band broke up.

While The Who’s Tommy was a critical and commercial success on stage and in record stores, in London theatres, Townshend’s concept album and ensuing stage version — The Iron Man —was a disastrous flop. The album, which featured John Lee Hooker as the singing voice of the Giant, and Nina Simone as The Space Dragon, received a highly positive response from fans and critics. It even featured a mini Who reunion with two songs, “Dig” and “Fire.” But the stage production was ravaged by critics, confused by a jumbled plot and unimpressed by the bland gentrified music. "I'd overworked the songs," Townshend admitted in his autobiography Who I Am, "so they sometimes came across without enough edge and seemed almost lightweight."The strength of the album outweighed the failed stage show, and Warner Bros. soon came calling. Townshend was given an offer he couldn’t refuse - to turn his concept into an animated film.

The Iron Giant Gets Animated

Brad Bird in 2004, at the release of his film The Incredibles, five years after The Iron Giant.

Nick Wall/WireImage/Getty Images

During the Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s, every movie studio was competing for animation domination. Money was no object when it came to making the next Lion King or Little Mermaid, but it seemed like no one could topple The Mouse. Warner Bros. was a cartoon powerhouse, but their animated features struggled to be a consistent contender at the box office.

By 1996, Brad Bird’s reputation as a director was exceptional, with a body of work to match, including a run on The Simpsons that’s still considered among the best in the series. But at this point, Brad was spinning his wheels in the animation world. His contract with Turner Animation was wrapping up in a few months, and Brad had little to show for it. His dream of directing an animated feature seemed further away than ever. A lateral move within their new parent company, Warner Bros Animation, presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – the chance to direct this new Pete Townshend property.

Bird went back to the Hughes book for inspiration, reshaping it through an American lens. The hotshot director wasn’t keen on the idea of a musical, and presented the studio with a different direction, all about a weapon that has a soul. Impressed with this concept, Warner Bros. moved forward with Brad at the helm. When Pete Townshend heard this, he was nonplussed, and according to the film’s writer Tim McCanlies, reacted by saying, "Well, whatever. I got paid."

There was just one massive problem. Brad discovered he was given half the time and a third of the budget needed to complete a typical major animated feature. In two and a half years, Brad’s team of underdogs rushed to complete the job. In one meeting, Bird remarked to his crew they beat Disney’s Tarzan to the finish line, even though The Mouse had 40 more animators toiling on it and a lengthy head start.

Before Brad accepted this herculean task, he made the studio agree to one key element - an unprecedented level of freedom, giving them an edge to flex their creative muscles against the Disney method of corporatized boilerplate movies.

Assembling the Iron Giant

Creating the look of The Iron Giant wasn’t an easy task. This movie needed to be about emotions, but how does a lump of steel emote? After countless design attempts, Joe Johnston figured out the vital upgrades needed to add life to the robot. Johnston gifted The Giant eyelids to better reflect his feelings, and a sliding jaw to allow flexibility in his mouth, allowing it to shift into frowns and smiles. It’s hard for audiences not to instantly fall in love with this expressive giant!

To add more flow and weight to the character, The Giant was animated using CGI. Since computer animation was becoming more prevalent in the late 1990s, this wasn’t entirely unusual in that period. But, to be clear, this was the first time an animated main character was rendered that way. Even though he moved as a 3-D CGI character, The Giant was painted the same as the rest of the characters to keep his appearance integrated seamlessly with the rest of the animated world.

Vin Diesel was a perfect casting choice and felt an immediate bond with the character. Diesel described him as a misunderstood gentle giant whose physical strength was his greatest enemy. We learn The Giant was meant to be a weapon of limitless power, but Hogarth sees past the mechanical shell and finds the humanity within.

Iron Souls Live Forever

For the makers of the film, the scene which was hardest to figure out in The Iron Giant was arguably the most powerful. When Hogarth and The Giant come upon a deer in the woods, slain by hunters, the robot is confused. Hogarth explains to his friend as best as a nine-year-old can about the permanence of the end of life, what happens after a physical being has left this planet, and becomes ethereal.

What drew Brad Bird to his reimagined version of The Iron Giant was found in the core of the original text. The movie would never really be about selling toys with Vin Diesel sound effects, or Jennifer Aniston singing a Disneyfied “I Want” song. The original book was a direct response to grief and the celebration of the everlasting soul.

“The notion of being in pieces and pulling yourself together again was a poetic way to make sense out of something that was so difficult to withstand,” Brad explained in an interview not long after the film came out. “There was some healing aspect to that story, and I was drawn to it.”

In 1989, the same year Pete Townshend released his Iron Man musical, Brad’s sister Susan was the victim of a murder-suicide at the hands of her estranged husband. Brad’s pencils remained unsharpened for months, taking a long-term break from art while falling into deep despair. He didn’t shake the feeling until he was offered a job on The Simpsons, giving him the chance to feel okay about laughing again, and in turn, living.

Hughes used The Iron Man to guide his family into some semblance of understanding a tragic passing, and so too did Bird when The Iron Giant wound up on his desk. Both Bird and Hughes were as lost as The Giant at the start of the story, but eventually find their way into the world and peace.

While the book and movie had many differences, they were connected through the core concept of finding sense out of something senseless. The Iron Giant pulling himself together with his broken pieces isn’t just a cool futuristic robot thing. It’s coming to terms with mortality, and literally being able to break the paralysis that grief causes, liberating yourself to move forward.

System Shut Down

When Warner Bros. ran early test screenings for The Iron Giant, it proved to be the most well-received film in over a decade for them, live-action or animated. Upon its August 1999 release, critics loved it, proclaiming it a modern masterpiece. The box office, however, disagreed. As far as Warner Bros. was concerned, it was a complete and total failure, incapable of breaking even with underperforming ticket sales.

Thanks to the dismal car wreck that was Quest for Camelot from the previous summer, Warner Bros. was wary to put all their eggs in one animated basket again. The studio doomed The Iron Giant with a paltry marketing budget, along with an arbitrarily rushed opening date with no merchandise tie-ins, the release practically had no fanfare. Warner Bros. was oblivious to the goldmine they had at their fingertips.

Despite winning awards, the movie fell into relative obscurity, though it gained a loyal cult following, thanks to a second life through VHS and DVDs. That said, it still took ages for it to stand toe to toe next to something like Toy Story, at least in terms of cultural perception. This labor of love spent far too long as a poorly-hidden treasure that was always in plain sight, never given a fair chance to shine. Today, it’s recognized for its gorgeous animation, refined storytelling, and beautiful message that touches viewers of every age.

The Iron Giant is streaming on Max and Amazon Prime, or available to purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon.

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