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The Iron Giant – Special Edition DVD: Review

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There are two reasons to celebrate the success of director Brad Bird’s recent animation feature “The Incredibles”. First – it’s a really excellent film. Second – it brings more attention to his previous (and even better) feature, “The Iron Giant”.  Originally released in 1999, “The Iron Giant” began as a pet-project for musician Pete Townshend, who wanted to turn his album version of Ted Hughes’ children book “Iron Man” into an animated musical. When Bird – at the time, an acclaimed director who worked on TV animated shows such as “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill” – took over the project, he took it in a very different direction.

“The Iron Giant” tells the story of Hogarth Hughes – a brainy, hyperactive, 11-year old kid, who is something of a social misfit among the other kids in the small town of Rockwell, Maine, in the 1950s. Raised by his loving, hard-working and often impatient mother after his father’s death, Hogarth finds refuge from the hardships of everyday life in the horror, science-fiction and comic-book fantasies of the era. Then one day, one such fantasy comes to life. A huge, 50-feet tall iron robot, that fell to Earth from outer space, with no memory of who he is and where he came from, finds himself near Hogarth’s home, and the two befriend quickly. But other people took notice of the Giant’s arrival too. One of them is Kent Mansley, a paranoid government agent, who sees threats everywhere, and starts a hunt for Hogarth’s new friend. Hogarth and the Giant turn for help to Dean – a young, lonely artist who runs the junk-yard at the edge of the town. Will they be able to keep the giant away from Mansley’s sight? How do you hide something so big?

Above its nostalgic look at the 50s space-age, and its criticism of the cold-war politics of the same era, “The Iron Giant” is, in both content and style, a beautifully told character-driven story of friendship. With every repeated viewing of the film, I am amazed at how much personality was injected into the Giant’s character – looking every bit as alive and dynamic as the human characters in the movie, from his “Close Encounters” arrival at the beginning of the movie to his “Frankenstein’s Monster” mode at the end. The scenes of bonding between him and Hogarth are beautiful and touching, and Hogarth’s attempts to hide the Giant are executed with brilliance in both the script and the animation department.

This extends to the other characters too. It appears every human character in the movie was animated with a certain neurotic side to it, but the film keeps it well within its “realistic” frame of events, largely due to the very confident performance by the voice-actors.

Eli Marienthal (Hogarth), Jennifer Aniston (Hogarth’s Mother), Harry Connick Jr. (Dean), and Christopher McDonald (Mansley), all provide a solid performance, pushing all the right emotional buttons without over-acting.

Final kudos goes for the lively portrayal of the small town in which the film takes place – making each passing character and every single location a living and breathing feeling.

The recently released special edition DVD of the film gives a fascinating insight into the story behind the film.  The crown-jewel here is the inclusion of 8 additional scenes, omitted from the film, presented mostly through storyboards and animatics. One of these scenes is a touching campfire conversation between Hogarth and Dean, extending the film’s ongoing theme of “you are who you choose to be”. Even more significant is a dream sequence of the giant, giving clues about his origin. The bonus section also provides the opportunity to “branch” into mini-documentaries when reaching specific points within the film, or watch the film accompanied by a commentary track featuring Bird and is team. The mini-documentaries are great (the short interviews with late composer Michael Kamen are especially interesting) – but I felt that it would all work better if these shorts were assembled into a single documentary, rather than forcing the viewer to watch the film and wait for the bonus icon to pop up. Similarly, the commentary track is very informative, but the soft, almost sleepy tone of everyone involved, is quite distracting.

There’s also a “Motion Gallery” showing how the film went from concept art to its final form, and two short sequences, presented by Teddy Newton. Newton, a storyboard artist on Bird’s team and a man with a weird sense of humor, present the “full” version (actually, non-animated sketches, accompanied by singing) of the “Duck and Cover” educational short from the film. Then there’s “The X-Factor”  – a short story presented by Newton in pretty much the same manner, about the first date of Hogarth’s mother with Dean. It’s hilarious, though I’d keep this one away from kids.

With the takeover of 3D animation in recent years, “The Iron Giant” is probably the last great American traditionally animated feature.  It is, definitely, one of the greatest animated features ever made.

Items mentioned in this article:

The Iron Giant (Special Edition) [DVD]

The Iron Giant (Special Edition) [DVD]

£22.99

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