Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant is something of a miracle as American animated films go. Unlike most Disney fare, then and now, this isn’t a children’s story – it’s a firmly PG-rated film that deals with more mature themes of a kind rarely seen in animation outside of Europe or Japan. Even in its day, back in 1999, The Iron Giant felt more personal and hand-crafted than other animated films, certainly compared to those that Warner Bros Feature Animation was producing at the time (think Thumbelina, Space Jam, Quest for Camelot, etc). And unlike most animated films today, The Iron Giant was made by hand using traditional 2D animation techniques – the only CG employed for the film was for the character of The Giant itself, and even then the filmmakers developed special software that introduced “flaws” into the animation so it wouldn’t look too perfect. Really, this film is a kind of love letter to a type of animation that never really existed in this country: traditional 2D work, produced to the level of quality of Disney’s Nine Old Men, but made in service of a more complex and modern style of storytelling.
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Adapted from a novel by Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant perfectly captures the strange atmosphere of the 1950, which was a time of unprecedented prosperity and innocence in America, yet was marked by ever growing fear and paranoia via the Red Scare, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Its story follows young Hogarth Hughes, a typical grade school-aged boy who’s living with his single mother in the idyllic small town of Rockwell, Maine. Late one night, after hearing a local fisherman describe seeing “invaders from outer space,” Hogarth is up watching scary movies when the reception goes out. Climbing onto the roof of his house, he discovers that the TV antenna is gone, and that a trail of destruction leads away from the house into the woods. Never one to shy away from adventure, and with his imagination running wild, Hogarth grabs his trusty BB gun and heads off in pursuit. What he soon finds will change his life forever – a 50-foot-tall “iron giant” with a huge appetite for metal and a heart to match. But Hogarth isn’t the only one looking for the giant; a Government agent named Kent Mansley (from the Bureau of Unexplained Phenomena) is hot on his trail as well. So Hogarth must ask for help from a Beatnik junk dealer named Dean McCoppin to help keep his new friend secret.
The Iron Giant is engaging and quite funny, but in a sly way. There are a number of great little in-jokes here. Take a look at the movie the kids are watching in the classroom scene – it’s a deft spoof on the “duck and cover” civil defense films of the day. There’s also a fun poke at 1950s sci-fi B movies (“Oh darn – a perfectly good brain wasted”). The voice cast is filled with surprising and effective choices. Jennifer Aniston and Harry Connick, Jr. are wonderful as Hogarth’s mother Annie and friend Dean, respectively, and young Eli Marienthal is a delight as Hogarth himself. Christopher McDonald plays Mansley to campy perfection. And the supporting cast is equally well chosen, featuring M. Emmet Walsh, John Mahoney, Vin Diesel (as The Giant), and Cloris Leachman. Speaking of Disney’s Nine Old Men, two of them –Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas –have great cameos here as locomotive engineers (which is fitting as can be given the pair’s well known and life-long love of trains).
Unfortunately, Warner’s original marketing campaign for this film was an unmitigated disaster, so most people passed on it theaters... if they even knew it existed at all. In fact, it really wasn’t until the film was released on DVD, in late 1999, that audiences began to discover its charms. But discover it they did: The Iron Giant quickly became a kind of cult favorite on disc, as word of it spread among movie enthusiasts around the Internet.
That said, while Warner’s original DVD release was fine for its time, it offered little in the way of bonus features. There was a theatrical trailer, The Making of The Iron Giant featurette, and a music video for the song “Cha-Hua-Hua” by Eddie Platt. In 2004, the studio re-visited the title on DVD with a better 2-disc Special Edition that added feature-length audio commentary (by director Brad Bird, head of animation Tony Fucile, story department head Jeff Lynch, and Giant animation supervisor Steven Markowski), 13 branching featurettes, Easter eggs & more. Still, it’s been a very long wait indeed for this film to finally get the kind of treatment it deserves in high-definition on Blu-ray Disc.
Thankfully, Warner’s new Signature Edition Blu-ray is here at last, following a DVD release late last year. The film has been fully remastered with a brand-new HD transfer. What’s more, Bird and his team have been allowed to complete and restore two additional scenes to the film (that had been storyboarded during the original production but not finished, including a brief new scene with Annie and Dean talking at the diner and a sequence in which we see The Giant having a nightmare via Dean’s TV–both are great and worthy additions to the film’s story). The film’s theatrical running time was 87 minutes and this new Signature Edition is 90 minutes. You’ll be pleased to learn that both versions are included on this Blu-ray (you simply choose which version you wish to watch when you play the film). The film is presented in its original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio, and the presentation is gorgeous. Colors are vibrant and accurate, black levels are satisfying, and detail is as good as it gets for 2D animation. The sound is included in a new English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that’s also quite good overall, even though this film’s sparse soundtrack has never been what one would consider sonic demo material. Clarity and staging are excellent, and though most of the action is front-loaded, there’s nicely atmospheric use of the surrounds. The dynamic range is impressive too – the scene in which Hogarth explores the woods is a good example, as the sound goes from his quiet whispers to the thunderous mechanical noises of The Giant almost effortlessly. Additional audio options include French, German, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai in Dolby Digital 5.1 format, and there are optional English captions as well as subtitles in several additional languages.
You’ll also be pleased to learn that Bird has created some wonderful new extras for this release, including a pair of new featurettes:The Salt Mines (7:06 – HD) and Hand Drawn (1:40 – HD). In the former, we follow a member of the original animation team as he goes deep into the hallowed Kansas “salt mine” (where Hollywood archives all of its most hallowed assets) to find original artwork created for the film. The latter features Bird musing on the lost art of hand-drawn animation. The best of the new material is The Giant’s Dream: The Making of Iron Giant documentary (55:47 – HD), which is a wonderfully personal, candid, and even emotional account of how this film came to be, and how difficult its production actually was. The original Special Edition DVD’s audio commentary has carried over here, but new commentary segments have also been recorded by Bird to cover the new Signature Edition scenes. There’s also a new Signature Edition trailer (2:32 – HD).
In terms of additional legacy material, the Blu-ray retains just about everything that’s been previously available on DVD, including the original The Making of The Iron Giant featurette (22:05 – SD), the 6 Deleted Scenes with introductions by Brad Bird (15:16 in all – SD – includes Original Opening Sequences, Campfire, The Drag Race, Tired at Breakfast, Original Introduction of Hogarth and Annie, and Classroom), the Teddy Newton: The X Factor (5:38 – SD) and Duck and Cover Sequence (2:23 – SD) featurettes, 5 The Voices of The Iron Giant featurettes (8:16 in all – SD – includes The Voice of the Giant, Hogarth Hughes, Dean McCoppin, Annie Hughes, and Kent Mansley), 3 The Score featurettes (4:49 in all – SD – including Opening Sequence, The Deer, and Kent & Hogarth), 6 Behind the Armor featurettes (17:31 in all – SD – including The Warner Bros. Logo, The Origin of the Giant, The Origin of the Movie, Bringing the Giant to Life, Storyboards and Animatics, and The Battle Sequence), the Motion Gallery (4:22 – SD), the “Brad Bird” trailer (1:29 – SD), and finally the Vintage DVD Easter Eggs (1:48 in all – SD – including a letter from Ted Hughes to the production, cheesy early CG tests of The Giant, later CG animation of The Giant doing a ballet move, and animated layout sketches of Kent Mansley’s pipe exploding and Hogarth break-dancing). Really, I think the only thing that isn’t here is that “Cha-Hua-Hua” music video from the 1999 DVD release, which is probably due to licensing issues. Nevertheless, between the wonderful new and vintage material, this is a very satisfying bonus content experience.
If you’re already a fan of this film –and you should be –you know that The Iron Giant is an American animated classic. If not: run, don’t walk, to get yourself a copy of this film on Blu-ray. The Iron Giant is a sheer joy, one of those rare film experiences that feels as if it was produced for you personally and that only gets better with repeated viewings. Warner’s Blu-ray is selling for just $9.99 at the time of this review, which is both puzzling and a steal.There’s also an Ultimate Collector’s Edition box set version that includes the same Blu-ray packaged with a hardcover book, a set of artwork cards, and a plastic replica of The Giant itself. It’s selling for $74.99, which is also puzzling (but for completely different reasons).In any case, the disc-based content is identical in each, so unless you’re a super-fan who just has to have it all, you can safely skip the UCE for the cheaper version.
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The Iron Giant: Signature Edition belongs on the Blu-ray shelf of every self-respecting film fan. Absolutely do not miss it.