Published July 1, 1999
The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird, is an animated adaptation of Ted Hughes’s fable which recruits it for a role in Hollywood’s continuing attempts to re-mythologize the 1950s according to “progressive” notions. The old mythology, now long discredited so far as Hollywood and the media are concerned, was that during that period God-fearing Americans living decent, hard-working lives with their happy nuclear families in middle-class suburbs were the backbone of American power. They showed their moral fibre by supporting their government’s admirable resolution in standing up to Godless, corrupt and oppressive Communism during the tense early years of the Cold War when Soviet power threatened to subjugate the whole of Europe.
Hollywood’s re-mythologization of this story is based on two assumptions. One is that the happy families were not really happy but instruments of both oppression (of women) and repression (of everybody) and that the popular culture, especially rock’n’roll, played an important part in breaking these shackles. The other assumption is that Communism, though perhaps a failure as an economic system, never really posed a threat to the American way of life at all. The Cold War was simply a product of mutual fear and misunderstanding, and the greatest danger the country faced during the period came not from the Soviets but from our own government’s paranoia and propensity to violence.
The Iron Giant makes both of these assumptions. Its hero is a boy called Hogarth (voice of Eli Marienthal) whose mother (voice of Jennifer Anniston) is a single parent and has to work as a waitress to support her fractured family. Clearly the 1950s, “Ozzie and Harriet” ideal didn’t work for her! There is no mention of what happened to Hogarth’s father, but the implication is that he was never a part of the boy’s life. Hogarth lives in a small town in Maine which, we are given to understand, is in the grip of Cold War paranoia. Only an improbable beatnik called Dean (voice of Harry Connick Jr.) who lives in a junk yard and makes sculpture out of scrap metal stands out against prevailing modes of thought among the credulous and simple-minded villagers.
Just as unexplained as the absence of father is the presence of the eponymous Giant, a Promethean and messianic figure from outer space which only Hogarth knows about and which he keeps in the barn. Why a single mom who works as a waitress lives in a house with a barn is also unexplained. Hogarth’s Giant-father, a lovable naïf with super powers, is really more of a little brother, requiring to be tutored in all the ways of the world by Hogarth. This includes political and moral instruction. “It’s bad to kill,” says Hogarth. “Guns kill. You don’t have to be a gun. You can be who you choose to be. You can choose.” And what the Giant chooses is to be Superman, whom he encounters in one of Hogarth’s comic books
Yet this part of his instruction, at least, hardly seems necessary, as the only moral or intellectual datum the monster brings with it from outer space is a programmed response to guns and other sorts of weapons. When it sees one, or even a child’s toy that looks like one, it shoots a death-ray which destroys it and, probably, the person holding it into the bargain. We are to suppose that the death ray itself is somehow exempted from the creature’s general disapproval of killing machines. The Iron Giant, like many a progressive before him, is only opposed to guns in the hands of others.
But Hogarth’s secret is not to be kept for long. The government has got wind of the Giant’s appearance and sent an immensely obnoxious, pipe-smoking G-man called Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald)—clearly named for his role as agent of the patriarchy—to poke around and ask questions while patronizing both Hogarth and his mother. Experienced Hollywood watchers will be able to predict everything else about the film from this point on. Mansley naturally turns out to be a vicious coward only interested in his own career who persuades his fellow fascists back in the Pentagon that the Giant is a security risk.
In their subsequent attempt to capture or destroy him they unleash a nuclear missile whose destruction of innocent life is only averted by an act of self-sacrifice on the part of the Giant. Greater love hath no robot, it seems, than he who getteth himself blown to bits for the sake of a cute little kid—and because Superman is his role model. And the moral of the story, children, is always to trust in the benevolence of space junk and beatnik artists and to mistrust that of the U.S. government and armed forces. In other words, don’t let your kids anywhere near this rubbish.