The Iron Giant – animated film review

Cover of the special edition DVD release of "The Iron Giant".
Cover of the special edition DVD release of The Iron Giant showing Hogarth and the Giant.
The Iron Giant (loosely based on the 1968 novel The Iron Man by England’s poet laureate Ted Hughes) is set in the 1950’s era seaport town of Rockwell, Maine, where a large humanoid robot from space inexplicably crash lands just off shore. Eleven year old Hogarth Hughes first hears rumors of the creature from a local fisherman, and then decides to go searching for “the invader from Mars” after watching a late night sci-fi movie.

After finding that the metal giant is friendly and almost childlike in his inexperience, he quickly befriends him, housing and playing with him at the local junk yard, owned by his new beatnik friend Dean. But keeping a 50 foot tall robot hidden amidst Cold War paranoia proves difficult in a small town, especially when the federal agent sent from Washington to investigate “the sightings” starts renting the spare bedroom in Hogarth’s house.

This is the lesser known, but equally excellent first film of brilliant animation director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille). Taking a textbook critical view, it’s everything a quality animated film should be: well structured plot, unobtrusive visual exposition, quality sound mixing, charming character designs accentuated by excellent character animation, seamlessly blended effects animation, realistic and natural voice acting, and universally relatable themes. But beyond the exquisite technical quality, The Iron Giant is vastly entertaining.

The film is packed with laugh-out-loud character based humor to equal the amount of political and emotional drama. It stirs up a nostalgic feel by alluding to time-honored science fiction and classic comic book characters like Superman. And at the story’s basis, is the enchanting concept of a piece of hardware searching for the meaning of the soul. Not unlike such touching robots as the one found in Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky and Wall-E.

I, for one, feel a great amount of liberation in seeing an American animated movie that is set in the real world and starring realistic people (not a musical fairytale). It also has an extremely cinematic look, uncharacteristic for the animated art form in America (and has some of the most beautifully animated snow I’ve ever seen). The film, having almost no marketing when it was released, was quickly considered a flop, even amidst glowing reviews. It has since experienced a cult-like following among animation aficionados, and deserves every morsel of attention it gets.

On a last note, I first saw The Iron Giant in theaters when I was about 11 years old, and was generally unenthusiastic about it at that age. I have since rediscovered it as an older and much more discerning adult.

Release Date: August 6, 1999 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG

MySF Rating: Five point zero stars
Family Friendliness: 90%


Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (some brief smoking)
Language: 1 (limited mild language)
Nudity: 1 (very brief bathroom scene)
Sexuality: 0
Violence: 3 (cartoon action throughout, characters in peril, discussion of guns and death, and some intense military violence)

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