The charm of The Iron Giant is that it draws on a collective bank of memory. The misunderstood monster theme is pleasantly familiar. Then, the animation around the Giant (Vin Diesel) looks like a Bugs Bunny cartoon – all clean lines, flat colors and one-dimensional faces. You’d almost expect Yosemite Sam to bust out of the woods with a shotgun.
But, thankfully, he doesn’t appear.
While the post-World War II look is fitting (because the 100-foot-tall Giant plunges from the sky to the United States during the Atomic Age), it’s more than just a nice contrasting backdrop for a massive metal-eating alien who befriends the young, fatherless Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal). The setting is intended to amplify a message.
After Hogarth rescues the Giant from a burning trap of tangled power lines, the boy teaches him a few phrases. As the two discover the corpse of a doe just shot by hunters, the Giant repeats this movie’s mantra, "Guns kill." It’s strangely poignant, in a Bambi-meets-Frankenstein sort of way. But it reeks suspiciously of poorly aimed anti-gun propaganda. Not that the movie doesn’t prepare you for it with images of Sputnik orbiting Earth in the opening scene.
At a time when kids and guns are a sensitive issue, maybe a small town in the 1950s is far enough removed from the sites of the present decade’s high school massacres to preach responsibility without insulting or horrifying the audience. The movie wears its social responsibility with pride, even if it doesn’t always know how to put together a coherent public service announcement. After all, the Giant is a deadly weapon himself who saves the town from another weapon while he serves as a behemoth-sized toy for a young boy.
Of course, kids, this movie’s core audience, will be smart enough to dismiss all this political nonsense and concentrate on how cool the Giant looks when he takes off like a rocket ship and soars through the clouds with Hogarth hanging on for dear life. And in that case, being somewhere between oblivious and naive is definitely a viewer’s best defense.
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