Published Mar 18, 2013In many ways, the Cold War era was about the loss of American innocence. The country had fought Civil and World wars by this time, waging the youthful, and idealistic, battle for freedom, liberty and a few other unsustainable concepts. But something about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK and the overall global unease and distrust of the Cold War forced the country into its adolescent, coming-of-age phase.
As such, the surprisingly rich and intelligent children's film, The Iron Giant posits itself as a loss of innocence parable for a young boy growing up in 1960s New England. Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) has a penchant for bringing home stray pets and wild animals to his frazzled working single mother (Jennifer Aniston), substituting emotional bonds with animals for the relationships he's unable to establish with his less erudite classmates.
This makes him—and incidentally his plight, being one of the first generation's to grow up with single working mothers—a prime candidate for Americana deconstruction when a giant robot from space (Vin Diesel) lands in the woods near his house and immediately becomes his friend.
The E.T. aspect of The Iron Giant aids in sheer narrative propulsion. Their learning curve in communication results in a series of comic misunderstandings, which in turn bonds the pair in an intensely emotional capacity that aids the climax.
The alien outsider is imperilled by an overall dread of difference, just as he is the target of American Cold War paranoia, presented as the enemy by sheer virtue of not being born on U.S. soil, regardless of virtue and demonstrated behaviours. Hogarth's lesson isn't that people will see the kindness in his robot friend; rather it's that people are deeply flawed and quick to prejudice.
This devastating coming-of-age realization, wherein a boy recognizes the faults of his elders and a world where justice is little more than an arbitrary mode of maintaining a schizophrenic status quo, captures the emotional maturation of America perfectly, encapsulating a similar loss of innocence and breakdown in traditionalist, backwards values. It's even more surprising that such a parallel is handled so astutely within the context of a very accessible, often funny (but mostly touching), children's film.
The Iron Giant is a rare work of wonder that exists within a lexicon that typically seeks to placate the audience with a pat message and a few self-referential gags to keep parents occupied while children stare blankly at incoherent nonsense. It's proof that you really can make an intelligent and emotionally connective film that appeals to the entire family, regardless of how that family looks.
The Iron Giant screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Comic Book Heroes retrospective at 1pm on March 21st, 2013. (Warner)