One of the sneaky things about children’s stories is that behind their apparent simplicity, there often dwells something much more sophisticated. It’s a clever ruse by adults who refuse to treat kids like they are idiots, and who show them respect by challenging their notions of right and wrong, good and evil, guilt and redemption, and the notion that every tale must have a happy ending. This tradition of storytelling uses its bright colors, visual whimsy, humor and music to create a kind of surface-level expectation that creates a universal accessibility before diving into deeper territory. Among these is a particularly fine example that over the years has slowly built its rightful place in the annals of modern animation classics: The Iron Giant.
It is 1957, in the small coastal town of Rockwell, Maine. McCarthyism is still a painfully recent memory, Sputnik just began orbiting the planet, and “duck and cover” drills are the era’s vain effort to keep kids safe by terrifying them over things they cannot possibly control. Young Hogarth Hughes lives with his widowed mother, Annie, who works as a waitress at the local diner. Growing up on a steady diet of Atomic Age science fiction, when Hogarth spots something plummet from the sky and crash in the woods nearby, he investigates, expecting to find an alien. To his surprise, he actually finds one in the form of a giant robot that eats metal for sustenance and to repair itself. The robot appears to have been injured in its trip to Earth, but Hogarth quickly establishes a rapport with his oversized new friend, as he teaches it how to understand people. But things get dicey fast when the robot’s mysterious arrival and subsequent near-sightings draw the attention of federal agents who fear a Soviet satellite might have landed in the area. Leading the charge is a wing-tipped authoritarian named Mansley, who is convinced Hogarth is hiding something, and aims it find out what. Knowing that nothing good will happen if the government discovers the Giant, Hogarth must do all he can to keep his friend safe. But he knows this robot was built for a purpose, and if attacked, it will defend itself with a kind of power nothing—on Earth can resist.
This movie is a delightful farewell letter to the days of classic animation. Sporting a mix of modern and traditional techniques, the Iron Giant that points to the future of the medium while casting a thankful backwards glance at the giants of yesteryear whose colossal efforts didn’t just make pictures like this one possible, but made them beloved. Thus positioned at such a pivotal moment in animation itself, it fits that the story takes place in a version of the 1950s seen through an especially modern lens, poking fun at the era with an irreverence that would have landed director Brad Bird a Congressional grilling back in the day. Given how hilarious some scenes are (including an instructional nuclear bombing safety film), though, it would have been worth it.
This Iron Giant also pays homage to the creature features of the time, especially in the movie’s first half, which plays out its alien reveal at a pace Ray Harryhausen would have loudly—and slowly—applauded. But that just sets the tone only so it can subvert it, because right when we might expect the Iron Giant to find a second monster to fight, or go on a rampage against the military, the challenge becomes much more personal: bonding with a young boy in sore need of friends, understanding the value of life and the permanence of death, and confronting the power of fear. As Hogarth struggles to keep the Giant out of Mansley’s hands, we know the Giant could easily swat aside anything the government could ever throw at it. But that is not what Hogarth wants. And deep down, that is not what the Giant wants either, even though that kind of havoc is precisely what it has been built for.
Of course, we eventually do get a climatic showdown between the Giant and the U.S. Army, and to a degree, it is exactly the kind of monster-vs-military crunchfest part of us wants to see. But more importantly, it makes a compelling point about how weapons don’t wield themselves, but their presence does beg that they get used. Suppressing the impulse to fight, kill and destroy is heroic, but it can be even more heroic to not arm up in the first place.
When it becomes clear to everybody on the scene why the Giant is fighting, it’s the military that stops shooting first in a gratifying step away from type. Is there a gung-ho idiot who still manages to push the conflict too far? You’d better believe it. But how the General on the scene handles that particular act of overkill, as well as his read on the Giant itself, is a great statement about how war machines may have a momentum of their own, but they still require somebody’s decision to pull the trigger. It doesn’t matter if those machines are made of alien alloys or flesh and bone. Weapons don’t wield themselves, but their presence begs to not go unused.
The greatest lesson the Iron Giant offers is in its epilogue, after the showdown between the Giant and the military ends on a note that is as tragic as it is heroic. Months later, as everybody else in Rockwell moves on with their lives, Hogarth is left wondering where in the world his friend might be, if he’s even out there at all. He gets an answer to his questions that offer certainty, if not satisfaction, in a moment of truth that underscores how friendships might wax and wane depending on circumstances, but ultimately, they acknowledge no true distance of time or space. The most important thing about friendship is knowing it is there. Everything else is just a detail.