A delightfully straightforward animated story about a lonely boy and the alien he befriends, "The Iron Giant" manages to be both cool and old-fashioned. It has enough science fiction and war toys for kids and enough unforced sentimentality and hero worship -- a theme that's not nearly as out of vogue as you might think -- for adults.
Throw in pleas for tolerance and peaceful co-existence, and you've got a children's film with messages that parents may enjoy having their children hear.
Firmly rooted in the comic-book traditions of the 1950s and 1960s, "The Iron Giant" is set in October 1957. The Soviets have just launched Sputnik, the Red Scare is at its height, and schoolchildren are learning how to duck and cover, the better to survive a nuclear blast.
Nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) spends his days being bored by school, reading Superman comics, daydreaming about that Russian orb up there in the heavens and wishing his mother, Annie (Jennifer Aniston), didn't have to work so hard at the local diner to make ends meet -- until the fateful day a 50-foot visitor crash-lands nearby.
After rescuing the robot from some high-voltage power lines, Hogarth realizes he's finally found the friend he's been looking for -- albeit a rather tall one with an insatiable appetite for metal.
The two have great fun, running through the woods, playing in the lake and, most important, finding out about each other. The Giant has no idea who he is or what he's doing here (that landing gave him a nasty bump on the head), but that's far from his most pressing problem.
For there's this government-type guy snooping around, looking for this huge robot thing he's convinced is some sort of Russian secret weapon.
Worse, the snoop is in constant touch with the Army.
"The Iron Giant" has a great heart, and I loved its evocation of the days when good old Superman, as uncomplicated a superhero as ever existed, was the height of cool.
The animation is sometimes crude, the scraggly characters sometimes too scraggly (their faces look more like prunes than people), and NRA types will abhor the film's anti-gun message, but that's their problem.
The rest of us will be too busy getting caught up in its simple magic.
`The Iron Giant'
Featuring the voices of Jennifer Aniston, Eli Marienthal and Harry Connick Jr.
Directed by Brad Bird
Released by Warner Bros.
Rated PG (cartoon violence)
Running time 90 minutes
Sun score *** 1/2