Reviewer's Bias* Loves: The Iron Giant, animation Likes: Brad Bird, gift sets Dislikes: Mondo's limited editions Hates: The slow death of traditional animation
The Story So Far...
A last gasp for traditional feature animation (finished as Warner Brothers was shuttering their feature animation division) Brad Bird's The Iron Giant tells the story of a robot from outer space and the boy he befriends on Earth, set against the political and cultural atmosphere of the 1950s. Inspired by Ted Hughes' The Iron Man, the film was considered a bust in theaters, but has become a beloved cult classic over the years, with a recent re-release in theaters and a pair of DVD releases. DVDTalk has reviews of the DVD releases.
Most of my truly favorite films came out when I was a child, when I was most impressionable--films like The Goonies or The Rocketeer. Of course, there are memorable movies that came out later, like Boogie Nights or The Birdcage, but the ones that own permanent real estate in my brain were released when I was little. Well, except for The Iron Giant, which I first saw with some friends the summer after I had graduated college. A group of adult men--arguably--sat and wept openly in a public theater at a children's movie few people paid any attention to. Brad Bird had found the key to our humanity, and the key was the friendship between a small boy and Vin Diesel.
The film is such an utter throwback that it seems quaint even for 17 years ago. Hogarth, an imaginative youth wiling away his time in small-town Maine, discovers that a giant metal man from outer space has crashed into his rural life and things were about to change. Attempting to hide this mammoth robot from his mom (Jennifer Aniston) and the town at large, with the help of hipster fellow outcast Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), is an amusing aspect to the film, but the real meat is the relationship between the Giant and Hogarth, which begins like that between a boy and the lost puppy he found, but grows into a platonic ideal as Hogarth teaches the alien being about life on Earth and life in general, as they face the realities of death, the pitfalls of being an outsider and the need to be true to one's self.
Hogarth's adventures in discovering and hiding his new pal would have been hugely entertaining on its own, but setting the story in the paranoia-laced setting of 1950s America, with the threat of the "other" lurking around every corner, raised the stakes to a whole new level, and made the film's bumbling villain, FBI agent Kent Mansley (Happy Gilmour's Christopher McDonald), more disturbing than you'd expect from a man who could be outsmarted by a child. Driven by a fear instilled by society, he's a dangerous foe, and when he finally makes his move, it's with deadly intent. This entire angle of the plot is incredibly dark, lending great depth and emotion to the film's finale--one of the single most tear-jerking moments in animation, nay, film history. It's also entirely earned, with the sadness built by the characters over the course of the film.
So much of that has to be credited to Diesel, who wrings tremendous humanity from rather limited dialogue, a trick he'd duplicate later on as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. With just a few words, he manages to create something indelible, pairing with Eli Marienthal (the voice of Hogarth) to create an unforgettable duo. Of course, he was aided in that effort by a wonderful team of animators, led by Bird and inspired by The Rocketeer director Joe Johnston's sketches, who created an incredibly emotive man of metal, and smoothly blended his stylish, striking CG animation into a sumptuous hand-drawn world that uses color brilliantly to accentuate the film's tone and emotion. For as beautiful as modern CG animation can be, the look of traditional cel animation has a special quality that is sadly missing these days.
When it was released, it was hard to miss one of the film's core messages--about the danger of firearms--coming just a few months following the shocking Columbine school massacre, but today it, along with other morals it delivers, is even more resonant. And with how that aspect of the film is parceled out, it is incredibly meaningful and incredibly moving. Perhaps it's a statement about how far society has fallen in recent years that a movie that basically says "Be a good person" can feel so special and unique.
This being the "Signature Edition" of The Iron Giant (the original is also included) means that three newly-completed moments are included that weren't in the original film (though it's really only two new scenes, with the third being a replacement for a scene already there, making it the way it was originally intended to be\.) There's nothing Earth-shattering about the content, less than a minute in total, as it doesn't change the plot in any way, though a sequence featuring the Iron Giant dreaming is rather impressive.
The Ultimate Collector's Signature Edition of Iron Giant arrives in a handsome, deep-blue individually-numbered (out of 15,000) box. Lift off the spot-holofoil coated, embossed cover and you reveal all the contents (see The Extras for the details.) The movie is part of a two-disc set, with a Blu-Ray of the film and a DVD copy. The discs come in a standard-width Blu-ray keepcase with matching (non-foil) cover art.
Though it does sport WB's awful default menu design, the Blu-ray also has an adorably subtle bit of animation to enjoy (the DVD on the other hand starts up in the film automatically.) The menu offers a choice to play the film, select scenes, adjust the setup and check out the special features. There are six audio options, including English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and French, German, Spanish (Castilian and Latin), Portuguese and Thai Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, while 13 subtitle tracks, including English SDH, French, German SDH, Spanish (Latino), Korean, Portuguese, Czech, Romanian and Thai.
The Quality The Iron Giant has always looked good, thanks to the artistry of those working behind the scenes, but in this newly-restored 1080p, AVC-encoded 2.4:1 transfer, it looks incredible. Colors are more vibrant than they've ever been, contrast is excellent, black levels are deep and the level of fine detail lets you appreciate the hand-drawn animation (not to mention the impressive CG on the Giant) in a whole new way. Grain is consistent throughout and digital distractions are not a concern. Nothing about this refreshed version of the film could be complained about, with the exception of some color mismatches in one of the new scenes' animation, made obvious by the clarity and brightness of the presentation. That aside, the film looks as great as it does in one's memory.
The look of The Iron Giant is a big part of its appeal, but the sound is a big part of why it's so affecting, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track here does a fine job of bringing all that magic home. The sound effects, a mix of clanging, grinding metal and the pleasant notes of a ‘50s childhood in rural Maine, are perfect--aided greatly in the low-end, which is fitting for a movie about a giant metal robot voiced by Vin Diesel (the master of barely-verbal emoting.) The surrounds help effectively build the soundfield of the film, with atmospherics and directional elements (particularly later on) establishing Hogarth's world, while dialogue is crisp, clear and strong. Music plays a big part as well and sounds terrific, whether it's the film's source cues or Michael Kamen's somewhat (and masterfully) manipulative score. Those last few scenes...woo. Getting dusty in here...
The Ultimate Collector's Signature Edition package holds quite a few items of interest beneath its shiny cover. The first thing you'll hit is a letter from Bird, printed on heavy stock, in which he discusses the film's development and release and its place in feature animation history. I'm relatively certain that the signature isn't authentic, but with just 15,000 pieces...
A wide-format, hardcover, 36-page book, The Evolution of The Iron Giant, chronicles the production and story of the film with gorgeous stills, sketches, concept art and photos from behind the scenes, on slick spot-UV coated pages (even on the endsheets, which use the coasting to define a repeating screw motif.) Though brief, it's a book any fan of The Iron Giant will want to peruse.
Dig a bit deeper and there's an envelope that holds five 7"x10" prints of beautiful Iron Giant designs courtesy of well-known art curator/distributor Mondo. These represent classic Mondo posters that have long been out of print, and will look terrific framed on a wall.
The final non-disc extra is a small plastic Iron Giant figurine, about 4.25" tall, with articulated hips, shoulders and neck. The figure comes with a gear-shaped base with slots for the feet, bringing the height to 4.5". Though certainly nothing like the Iron Giants released by Trendmasters in 1999 (not to mention Mondo's recent limited-edition version), it's reasonably detailed, with clean paint application in the eyes (the only paint on the piece.) The figure comes in a plastic bag, which is inside its own separate box (with Iron Giant art on it).
Moving to the on-disc extras, there's a mix of new content and older material, taken from both the 2004 and 1999 DVDs. Most of the extras from those discs have been collected here, with the exception of the music video for Eddie Platt's ‘50s instrumental tune "Cha-hua-hua", some text screens and photo galleries and the DVD-ROM content on the first disc.
New content in this set starts with The Giant's Dream, a fantastic 55:47 documentary on the making of The Iron Giant, narrated by Bird, featuring original animation that chronicles his life and his work on the film. Partially a biography of Bird, it gives a full picture of who he is and why he made the movie (including an interesting bit of personal motivation.) This is a warts-and-all picture of Bird, which lays some of the blame for the film's theatrical failure at his feet, while also proving the WB marketing effort to be garbage simply by including one of its ads for the film. It also gives a peek at some great tidbits, including some of Bird's first animation work, his original animation of Will Eisner's The Spirit, a look at his abandoned project Ray Gunn and some insight from Guillermo del Toro. All in all, it's the retrospective the film deserved.
Also new to this set (and exclusive to Blu-ray) is "The Salt Mines" (7:06), a featurette featuring crew member Andrew Jimenez, who was tasked with collecting the film's original artwork from WB's archive...which happens to be 650 feet under Kansas. This is an amazing part of film history, and it's a great chance to learn about it, as well as see a bunch of original Iron Giant art that no one's seen in years. Keep your eyes peeled for the names on some of the boxes in storage and imagine what's in there.
"Hand Drawn (1:40) is also new and is a brief tribute to hand-drawn animation, with narration by Bird and archival production footage that will make you nostalgic for the good old days of ink and brush.
An audio commentary, featuring Bird, Head of Animation Tony Fucile, Story Department Head Jeff Lynch and Animation Supervisor Steven Markowski, is a carry-over from the 2004 DVD, and it's a loaded track, with lots of info on the film's development, as well as info on the Easter eggs hidden in the movie, along with notes on the story battles that took place during production. What's new here though is the option to watch with new commentary from Bird over the "signature" moments as he basically explains why each was added. If you listen to the signature version, a few notes from the original track are removed to make room.
Six deleted scenes are available from the 2004 disc (down from eight, as two are now in the movie) running 15:16 in total, with intros from Bird who details the editing decisions. The scenes, including the original opening, are in either animatic form or rough animation, and of the bunch, a scene with a drag race is easily the most enjoyable (for Diesel's performance), though the last scene lets you hear more from Cloris Leachman, who is barely in the actual movie.
There's a variety of featurettes from 2004, starting with "Teddy Newton: The X-Factor" (5:38). After hearing praise for this valued crew member, we get to hear and see his story pitch for a scene between Dean and Hogarth's mom that is simply bananas. Newton is also the mind behind the "Duck and Cover Sequence" (2:23), a faux air-raid drill animated filmstrip in the movie with an impossibly catchy and disturbing song to go with it.
"The Voices of The Iron Giant" is made up of five parts (8:16 with a play-all option), and introduces you to the actors behind the voices, with an emphasis on Diesel. The similarly multi-part "The Score" (three parts, 4:49) gives composer Michael Kamen the chance to discuss the writing and conducting of three particular parts of the film's music, while the more extensive six-part, 17:31 "Behind the Armor" details different portions of the animation effort, including the unique WB opening logo, the design of the robot and the storyboard and animatics. Finally, the "Motion Gallery" is a well-made montage of concept art, which is compared to how it was used in the film.
Also from 2004 are a pair of trailers, including the 2:32 "Signature Edition" trailer, which should have been the one released in 1999, as it hits all the right notes, and what's labeled as the "Brad Bird Trailer" (1:29), which one assumes was a better-than-the-studio's version created by the director and perhaps leaked online to try to promote the film.
Hailing from way back in 1999 is "The Making of The Iron Giant" a fluffy 22:05 promo piece for the film featuring interviews with the cast, but which is most notable for how awkward Diesel is as the host. It practically counter-balances any cool factor he's engendered over the course of his career.
Wrapping things up is a 1:48 reel of Easter Eggs from the 2004 disc, which includes various odds and ends, like a letter from Hughes to the producer, some bad CG of an odd-looking Iron Giant, footage of the Giant and Hogarth dancing and rough animation of a prank on Mansley.
Also in the package is a promotional insert for some Iron Giant goods, and a code for an Ultraviolet copy of the film.
The Bottom Line
I could only imagine what it would have been like to watch The Iron Giant as a small child. It would have been one of those memories that shapes your entire worldview. At the same time, watching it as a burgeoning adult, it had just as powerful an effect, reminding you of what great animation and just plain great filmmaking can be. Getting to share that in a theater with my daughter was something special too, and now this new release will allow others to enjoy that feeling as well, with the tremendous presentation and wealth of bonus content making this release a love letter to the film's strident fans. Does everyone need this more expensive version? No. But if you can afford it? It's well worth it to a collector to get the entire package. And it's a lot cheaper than a $300 toy.
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.