The past five weeks here on Saturday Morning Cartoons, I’ve focused on films from the DC Animated Universe. Right now I’m getting out of that mode and moving back toward my regularly-scheduled content (believe it or not, I set out on this series intending to work mostly with television cartoons,) but first, I want to take a little aside and talk about The Iron Giant. In the midst of watching the DC movies for October, I decided to watch The Iron Giant as a break both from DC and all the other work I have to do on a weekly basis. As soon as I finished watching it, I knew I had to write about it.
Directed by Pixar’s Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) The Iron Giant tells the story of a 9-year-old boy named Hogarth, who is growing up in Maine in the late 1950s. One night, Hogarth discovers a gigantic robot of mysterious origins in the woods surrounding his house, and the unlikely pair become good friends. When an FBI agent bent on destroying any technology not developed by the US government begins to suspect that the robot is hidden in Hogarth’s town, however, Hogarth is forced to protect his new friend.
It would be pointless for me to list the many, many strengths of this movie. I honestly believe this is one of the greatest animated films ever made, and I’m not alone . It’s a beautiful, remarkably well-told story, and everyone should watch it. The reason I felt such an intense need to talk about The Iron Giant here was not because I wanted to review it, but because I think it’s a wonderful example of what animation can accomplish and why I choose to write about it.
First of all, animation can have universal appeal. The Iron Giant has everything that you’d expect kids to latch onto in an animated feature: whimsy, imagination, a protagonist young enough to be relatable for them, and a cool-looking robot with a heart of gold. Through its portrayal of the American 1950s as a simpler time, the film evokes a uniquely adult emotion: nostalgia. I believe nostalgia is one of the greatest delights for adults that family-friendly animation can provide.
The film’s 1950s America isn’t entirely nostalgic, though. The Iron Giant constructs its themes in subtle ways that add layers of meaning for anyone watching who knows about the state of American society at the time. An undercurrent of paranoia and tension between the fundamentalist right and the increasingly vocal left runs throughout the film. It also contains numerous references to 1950s pulp sci-fi magazines and B-movies (the poster is one indication of this,) as well as the nuclear threat that dominated the West’s consciousness at the time. These are details you couldn’t possibly pick up on as a kid, but appreciate as an adult.
One false assumption I often notice people making about animation is that most stories could work just as well in a live-action film or TV series as they do in a cartoon. There’s a reason why so many animated films incorporate science fiction or fantasy into their plots, or give voices to things that couldn’t possibly speak under normal circumstances (animals or toys, for example.) Animation allows creators to craft fantastical worlds without hours of makeup, elaborate props, or CGI (which may seem simple, but just take a look at the making of the newer Star Wars movies to see how challenging trying to act and film in a sterile vacuum of green surfaces can be.) Would The Iron Giant be as effective in a live action setting as it is in an animated one? Absolutely not. The movie was released in 1999, before CGI became as realistic and widely available as it is today, so trying to attempt the story using live action and a computer-generated robot was out of the question.
There’s also a certain disconnect in live action that just isn’t a problem in animation. I know that sounds vague and abstract, so I’ll explain myself. I remember seeing a quote by Neil Gaiman once about why comics were, in his mind, superior to film. Unfortunately I can’t find the exact quote right now, but if I find it later I’ll make sure to put it here. The gist of his argument was that comics allowed a writer to work with an artist to ensure that what was on the page was an exact representation of how he wanted a character to look; ideally, each movement and expression would be exactly what he had in mind when he wrote the scene. With live action, Gaiman argued, the best you could get is an actor’s interpretation of a character, which creates distance between the work’s original intention and the finished product. Though animation is generally a much larger collaborative process than a comic, I think the same mechanisms are at work here. When you watch The Iron Giant, you see exactly what the creative team intended, not an actor’s/makeup artist’s/costume designer’s interpretation of it.
That brings me to my final argument about why animation is worthwhile. Many movies strive to be visually striking, aesthetically pleasing, or at least interesting to look at. Because film is a visual medium, filmmakers have to go beyond telling an engaging story and consider what looks best in front of a camera. Of course, the aesthetic possibilities using physical landscapes and actors are vast (I guarantee you’ll never look at a desert the same way again after watching Lawrence of Arabia). The possibilities in animation, however, are infinite. An artist can create literally any look s/he wants in an animated film. That’s why I think it’s such a shame that cartoons in America tend to be dominated by a standard visual style, usually dictated by whatever happens to be popular in a certain time period. Throughout the 1990s, the accepted style was that of the so-called Disney Renaissance. Now, it’s Pixar.
The art of The Iron Giant creates lush, soft-looking visuals to beautiful effect. It doesn’t completely veer away from the look of Disney films at the time (Tarzan came out the same year, Mulan the year before,) but unlike its Disney counterparts, it focuses less on caricatures and more on just looking beautiful.
At this point in time, Disney was focusing more on detailed character designs with minimalist backgrounds. You simply wouldn’t have seen this level of detail in a Disney film at the time, beautiful as the animation in many of those films were.
Go watch The Iron Giant, if you haven’t. This article isn’t meant to be a review, but I do believe there’s something in this film for everyone. I hope that when you watch it, you’ll begin to understand why I feel a need to write about cartoons every week: some things from childhood are just too good to let go.
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