Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant is a classic famous in part because of its anti-violence message, which a real-world tragedy helped inform.
Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant arrived in the middle of a very competitive summer in 1999. Despite phenomenal word of mouth and the feeling that it constituted something special, it had the misfortune to open against a surprise blockbuster – M. Night Shyamalan The sixth sense – which did it poorly at the box office. Bird went on to direct a series of classics at Pixar, including Ratatouille and both Incredibles movies, and The Iron Giant esteem rose with its director, as new fans discovered it on DVD and cable.
But what was not known until recently was that Bird had deeply personal attachments to the story of The Iron Giant and its message of non-violence and understanding. He suffered a family tragedy that inspired the film’s themes, giving him and his kind hero an even greater emotional resonance.
What is the iron giant talking about?
Iron Giant’s title refers to a colossal robot from outer space, built by unknown forces as a weapon of extermination. It is damaged and falls to Earth shortly after the launch of Sputnik, where a lonely boy named Hogarth Hughes discovers it in the woods of Maine. The Giant has lost his memory and quickly becomes attached to the boy. When the government determines the Giant is a threat, they stage a confrontation, and when the Giant believes Hogarth is killed, their programming activates. But Hogarth’s recovery and the giant’s attachment to him help the robot overcome its basic purpose and sacrifice itself by intercepting an ICBM before it can fall on the town of Hogarth.
The film garnered immediate praise for its witty storytelling and strong characterizations, especially the bond between Hogarth and the Giant. But it’s the overall theme of growing beyond one’s limits that really made the film stand out. He presented his plea for non-violence as an organic part of the story – using a strong narrative instead of a preachy message – and although the setting was quite specific, it was delivered in a way to evergreen that could apply to any conflict. It was the kind of storytelling strengths Bird later displayed during his Pixar run, while his Warner Bros. release status. meant he could explore darker implications than Disney. In addition to its other merits, The Iron Giant a great late example of traditional 2D animation, which was rapidly diminishing in the face of improvements in CG animation.
The inspiration behind the Iron Giant, explained
During the press preparation for 2018 The Incredibles 2, Bird spoke with VT about the circumstances that led to the creation of the film. Her sister Susan was killed by her husband with a gun, leaving her family devastated. Around the same time, he was developing The Iron Giant and pitched it to Warner Bros. like the story of a gun that develops a conscience. It was a powerful idea, and its inclusion as a central part of the film helped give it its longevity.
This comes across most tellingly in dialogue, with Hogarth pleading with the Giant to choose to be better, and the danger coming as much from someone refusing to admit they’re wrong as an attack with malevolent intent. It resonates with the reality of Bird’s loss, and the film’s bittersweet ending – promising a sequel that never happened – is all the more heartfelt because of this truth. The Iron Giant is perhaps Bird’s wish for a happier outcome of an unimaginable loss – a fantasy about the weapon itself finally having enough.
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