Essential Iron

AT THIS POINT, I'd generally rather spend an evening counting Richard Simmons' chest hairs than go to see a feature-length cartoon. So many of animated movies of late have been atrocious Disney productions with grueling musical numbers thrown in to interrupt the cutesy action every seven minutes.

So it was with some wariness that I went to see The Iron Giant, which luckily turned out to be the best animated feature of the decade, and one of the best movies of the year.

Warner Brothers Studios saw The Iron Giant as a perfect way to grab the early-teen male audience: it's got old-style Warner animation, a big robot, and a young boy who's a misfit by virtue of his absent father and his affinity for beatnik trash-art. However, unlike your average 1990s movie cartoon which draws its inspiration from some crappy TV cartoon of the 1970s, The Iron Giant's source is the very sophisticated children's book The Iron Giant: A Story in Five Nights, by Ted Hughes. Hughes, who was England's poet laureate, is hardly the standard source for a giant-robot-from-space story, in spite of his wife Sylvia Plath's work on the early episodes of Scooby Do.

The Iron Giant movie is a take on the classic fairy tale about the lonely boy who finds the perfect friend, in this case a 6-story-tall alien robot. The little boy, who must cope with the dual constraints of being fatherless and named "Hogarth," runs into the robot as it's about to get electrocuted at a power plant. After saving its life, the boy teaches it the ways of earth while an evil, McCarthy-era government agent tries to find and kill the robot.

The story is set in small-town Maine in the mid-'50s, -- the height of the Red Scare, when our own government took a page from the totalitarian regimes it supposedly opposed and began large-scale spying on its own citizenry. (Of course, small-scale spying on its own citizenry had always been a popular pastime of the U.S. government.)

Agent Kent Mansley of the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomena arrives upon hearing reports of something falling from space. Fearing it could have been sent by "the Reds," he begins hunting for the Iron Giant rumored to haunt the local woods.

This leads him to young comic-book fan Hogarth Hughes, who mouthed off about the robot when he first encountered it. Agent Manley tries to act fatherly towards Hogarth, repeatedly calling him "champ," "sport" and "pardner." Nothing is more evocative of the evil that lurks in the heart of the average adult than the term "pardner." Meanwhile, Hogarth is hiding his giant with beatnik junk-artist Dean McCoppen, voiced with perfect beat rhythms by Harry Connick Jr., who is perhaps the last professional beatnik in America.

Avoiding the government, learning the ways of the world and eating lots of scrap steel, the giant is something of an everyman, in the way that anything that comes from a distant planet and winds up in Maine is paradigmatically universal.

While roughly 43 percent of all crappy films from the 1950s featured a giant robot falling to earth from outer space, The Iron Giant manages to avoid crappiness quite ably by combining that tale with a more modern political sensibility, and the oldest and perhaps most resonant story in the world: i.e., the story about a lonely person who finds a loyal friend who's untouched by the world. The Iron Giant is basically Gilgamesh or a Brother's Grimm tale, updated for those of us who like to see big robot-monsters chewing up cars.

But that story could just as easily turn into Encino Man or My Favorite Martian if the human elements were sketched too broadly. Where The Iron Giant surpasses most is in its carefully drawn characters. Starting with very standard stereotypes allows the film to create an immediately recognizable reality (the misfit boy, the evil government agent, the beleaguered mom, the giant robot from outer space who's lost his memory and is moved to tears by the sight of a wounded deer); but the movie isn't satisfied with simply putting forward universal characters.

Against the stream of contemporary cinema, it produces instead motivated interactions between the characters. Too often in films today, a man and woman fall in love just because they are the lead characters in the film; or two men become friends just because they happen to be appearing in a number of scenes together. We take for granted that the characters will link up, because that's the cinematic convention, rather than because we're offered some compelling reason to believe this particular man should love this particular woman, or these two buddies aren't instead strangers, or even enemies.

In The Iron Giant, the friendship between the boy and the giant builds naturally from their discovery of their underlying similarity. Likewise, the boy's relation to his beatnik friend makes sense as the boy, the beatnik and the robot all discover, in clearly illustrated sequences, what they have to gain from each other; their mutual empathy is strongly felt in the way each is treated by outsiders. All have images or ideas of themselves that are unrealized outside of their tiny outcast community. This strong motivation makes the film much more affecting than most live-action romances or tear-jerkers.

The H-wood beat can make even the hardest critic want to cry, but not often with the sheepish sincerity inspired by this Iron Giant.

The Iron Giant opens Friday, August 6, at Century El Con (202-3343), Century Park (620-0750) and Foothills (742-6174) cinemas.

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