“You are who you choose to be.”
Director Brad Bird’s “The Iron Giant” didn’t make much of a ripple when it premiered almost fifteen years ago. But ever since I sat down to watch it on a borrowed VHS, I haven’t stopped coming back to his science fiction animated film. I probably continue coming back to “The Iron Giant” because not only does it delve in themes of friendship, but it’s also about mortality, and the inherent violent nature of humanity.
<!–more–>Surely, the iron giant that crash lands on Earth is a monster sent to wreak havoc on our planet, but that’s only by the design of another species altogether. We’re never clued in to what kind of alien species built the Iron Giant, and what it had planned for us. All we know is that the Iron Giant crash lands from another planet, and is lucky enough to meet Hogarth Hughes.
The Superman parallels are justified and utterly entertaining, as the Iron Giant is brought down to our planet with immense power and ability to destroy us with one hand. But thanks to a small town human being, he learns that human life is fragile. The Giant is inherently a creepy and horrifying construct, but one that, like a newborn child, comes in to our world without knowledge of the environment.
That’s thanks to the bump he receives on his head. The Giant then has to re-build his knowledge of life of all kinds, and grows to realize that while he is certainly just a machine, he’s a machine capable of thinking, learning, and ultimately, loving. To the species that created the giant (and probably to Kent Mansley), love would make one weak and vulnerable.
But ultimately what fuels the giant’s ability to sacrifice itself for the world and save the planet by colliding in to the nuclear warhead, is its ability to love. His love for Hogarth and its inability to comprehend so many people dying for nothing is what inspires him to blast in to the sky and become the hero of Hogarth’s town. And the world. It’s also what turns Dean, the reclusive artist in to a fully fleshed individual.
When we meet him, he’s tucked in his junk yard building formless art pieces, but his bond with Hogarth and his love for his mother Annie makes him much more interesting. Plus, it inspires him to pay tribute to the giant with a fully formed and majestic sculpture. Hogarth doesn’t just find a friend when the giant lands, but he also finds a reason to explore the world and look for greener pastures. In the beginning he’s just a latchkey kid who takes to science fiction for a distraction. In the end when the giant has committed himself to sacrificing for the world, Hogarth now has friends and a family that he considers complete.
There’s not a lot of focus on the nuclear family, only the family that Hogarth earns through sacrifice for his friend, the giant. Surely, his mom Annie is a well meaning mom who works hard to keep Hogarth fed and sheltered, but the introduction of a male role model doesn’t hurt either. Through Dean, Hogarth expects a fancy free and fun escape from his world with the giant. But Dean reveals himself to be responsible, courageous, wise, and like the giant, self-sacrificing. Hogarth also garners a new found appreciation for life by learning to cherish and nurture it. When the Giant arrives, it’s a vulnerable being in need of guidance and safe harbor, and Hogarth provides it for him.
He also gives him a look in to how awful and how amazing life can be. And through the most simplistic manner possible, he teaches the giant that the taking of any life is reprehensible. However, when a being dies, there’s no guarantee they’re going to suffer forever. The trick is knowing appreciating life while also learning to think of death as another state of being for the things and people we loved and once loved. “It’s bad to kill,” Hogarth says, “But it’s not bad to die.” Hogarth is definitely not scared to find out what death holds for him, but in spite of his love for war movies and science fiction, he’s well aware that life has to be cherished because of how utterly immediate it can be.
This is made clear when Hogarth and the Giant observe a deer in the wild, only for it to be murdered in cold blood by hunters. The Giant’s immediate response is to strike back with immediate violence, but thanks to Hogarth’s own sense of forgiveness, he learns not only about the beauty of life, but also the virtue of mercy. When the giant’s bump forms back and he thinks Hogarth to be dead, he strikes back at humanity, ready to destroy it for snuffing out one of the very few genuine articles. But once Hogarth comes back to him, the giant exercises mercy and empathy despite his inborn instincts to kill and destroy. Even when Kent attempts to flee the town once he learns of the bomb, the giant still manages to display mercy by stopping him in his tracks without hurting or murdering him.
Of course being a Superman fanatic, the idea that Superman is the basis and template for all things heroic is one of the many reasons why “The Iron Giant” has struck a chord with me. But it’s also a compliment to the ideal Superman strives for, promoting the idea that super powers aren’t necessary for a hero to step forward and make a difference in the world. It’s only by coincidence that the iron giant possesses much of the attributes that Superman does. Like Superman, he also uses his amazing power to help man kind, rather than lay waste to it.
The Iron Giant’s sacrifice for mankind is the demonstration in his belief in humanity. While he has seen the ugliness of it with the hunters, the army, and Kent Mansley, he’s also seen that it can accomplish amazing things with Hogarth, Annie, and Dean. Whether good or evil, all life should be held at its highest regard, and the Giant submits his own, in a bid to save the human race and perhaps instill influence in them of heroism and community. Director Bird’s “The Iron Giant” surely won’t be leaving my mind any time soon, as it’s a children’s animated film with narrative teeming with adult and intelligent themes that I love to re-visit and ponder on every chance I get.