The filmography of Warner Bros. Animation throughout the 1990s was strange. The studio was desperate to try to make its impact on the animation scene and rival Walt Disney Animation Studios but was so poorly mismanaged that none of its films except for "Space Jam" made an impact on the box office. The quality of their filmography is also a mixed bag with beloved cult classics like "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" and "Cats Don't Dance" and some duds like "Space Jam" and "Quest for Camelot". However, out of all the animated films they made, "The Iron Giant" is easily the one that stands tallest throughout their entire catalog. The directorial debut from animation legend Brad Bird who would go on to Pixar to direct both of "The Incredibles" films as well as "Ratatouille", this is a film that has managed to rise to become a classic over the years after flopping at the box office due to poor marketing and rightfully so. In my opinion, this film is not only the best-animated film Warner Bros. Animation has ever made, but it earns its title as one of the greatest animated films ever made and is one of my personal favorites ever.
In Rockwell, Maine during the height of the Cold War in 1957, a giant metal giant (Vin Diesel) falls to Earth near the city in the middle of the night and rumor starts to spread of it being from somewhere else. One person who overhears the gossip is nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marinthal) who ends up discovering the curious giant and befriends it while keeping it hidden in the scrapyard of an artist named Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) However as panic stirs through the town, a government official named Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) is called up to Maine to investigate the situation and begins to suspect that this giant might be deadly and could cause massive panic.
It's quite a miracle that this animated film ended up being as good as it was. Like I said in the beginning, Warner Bros. Animation was a mess in the 90s and had no idea what they were doing which resulted in a lot of not-great films including "Quest for Camelot" which reeked of executive interference as it was clearly trying to be like Disney. Though because that film flopped and executives started to panic about animation, Brad Bird and his team were left alone to make the film they wanted to make and it really benefited them in the long run. Much like Pixar with "Toy Story", the filmmakers wisely decided to let this film be its own thing without copying Disney which is what helps it stand tall amongst the crowd and why it's one that I love like no other. The story is one we've seen before with a boy befriending a creature from unknown origins with Steven Spileberg's classic "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" coming to mind, but it's able to stand tall due to packing so much power and is filled with some great and playful setpieces that Bird excels at.
One setpiece that notably stands out is where the Giant's hand starts to wander around the Hughes home and Hogarth tries to keep it hidden from his mother Annie (Jennifer Anniston) without it causing too much destruction. Having learned a lot working on "The Simpsons" for many years, Bird is able to craft such playful and fun scenes with Hogarth and the Giant while also injecting the film with tons of emotion. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Hogarth and the Giant come across a deer who gets shot by some hunters which results in Hogarth explaining the Giant death and that "souls don't die". It's one of the most powerful animated scenes ever crafted and I could tell the scene was pretty emotional for Bird as the prime inspiration from the scene came from his sister Susan being shot and murdered by her estranged husband.
The writing of the film really just works well with Bird and his screenwriter Tim McCanlies also using visual storytelling to show the film's notable exposition without it being spoonfed. This all leads to one of the most powerful and emotional third acts ever crafted in film, not just animation. Speaking of the animation, it's still quite timeless and gorgeous. Brad Bird's films have such a unique style to them that you could tell that it was directed by him based on the look and feel and this film is where his style truly gets to blossom here. Bird pulls from a lot of unique inspirations including Chuck Jones, Al Hirschfeld, and even tons of classic Disney Animation films and you can easily see all the influences in the film. I also particularly love how well the Giant looks all these years later. The character is made with computer animation but he blends so perfectly with the traditionally drawn characters that he never once feels out of place.
The characters of the film are also perfectly written as well. Hogarth genuinely feels like an actual nine-year-old boy who's both kind but also a bit mischievous which we first see when he's introduced as he brings a squirrel into the diner his mother works at. His relationship with the Giant is truly special as the Giant comes across more like a curious infant put on the planet not knowing he's a powerful weapon and Hogarth teaches him about life on Earth and shows him that he is what he chose to be by aspiring him to be a hero like Superman. The other characters he interacts with all are perfectly written too. Dean is a funny beatnik character trying to go with the flow and making art alongside running the scrapyard while Kent is a hilarious antagonist who's driven to paranoia due to heightening tension with the Russians and suspecting the Giant could be truly deadly. Overall, this film just has such incredible writing.
"The Iron Giant" quite honestly is one of the most powerful animated films ever made with an emotional and funny story, truly timeless animation, and a cast of well-written and loveable characters. This is such a powerful film from Warner Bros. Animation and director Brad Bird and it's easily a film you should definitely watch. The film does say that "souls don't die" and you can also say that about good films. They live forever and this one surely will.