When "The Iron Giant" arrived in theaters in 1999, it was hailed as an "instant classic" by Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal, and the world soon learned another giant had arrived as well: filmmaker Brad Bird, who made his stunning directorial debut with this film and has gone on to win two Oscars, as well as worldwide acclaim for his work on both animated and live-action features. Winner of nine Annie Awards, "The Iron Giant" has been re-mastered and enhanced with two all-new scenes.
The film takes place in October of 1957, when America had plenty to be worried about. Rock 'n' roll. Television. The bomb. And on the fourth day of that month, the Soviets successfully launched the first manmade satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. The space race had officially begun. The Cold War just got colder. People were unsure about their neighbors, even questioning their friends.
In the small town of Rockwell, Maine, Annie Hughes (voice of Jennifer Aniston) is just worried about putting supper on the table for herself and her nine-year-old son, Hogarth (voice of Eli Marienthal). A single mother holding down a job at the local diner, Annie has her hands full with Hogarth—headstrong and imaginative, always on the lookout for the latest attempted takeover by mutant aliens or subversive invaders.
So when a local fisherman comes into the diner with a tall tale about a huge metal man falling into the sea, the only one to pay him much attention is Hogarth, who sets out exploring to find the enormous robot. What he does find is a 50-foot giant with an insatiable appetite for metal and a childlike curiosity about its new world.
Rumors of everything from an alien invasion to a Russian secret weapon bent on destroying Rockwell soon spread through the small town, prompting the arrival of government agent Kent Mansley (voiced by Christopher McDonald). Keeping one step ahead of Mansley, Hogarth convinces his beatnik friend Dean (voiced by Harry Connick, Jr.) to hide the Iron Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) in Dean's junkyard.
But it isn't long before the rumors turn into paranoia—the situation escalates and the possible destruction of Rockwell looms. Hogarth turns to his friend, the Iron Giant, who ultimately finds its humanity by unselfishly saving the town's residents from their own fears and prejudices.
In times like these, you really find out what your friends are made of…sometimes, it's even metal.
The other day I was lurking around the interwebs and saw an all-too-common argument -- folks using a film's financial success as a benchmark for overall quality. Apparently, only good movies make money and only bad movies tank, right? Right?
I hope you can see the logical fallacy.
Point being that, while there are certainly some wonderful films that print money and terrible ones that vanish quickly, terrible, horrible, utterly forgetful movies can be tremendous blockbusters spawning sequels and cinematic universes, while timeless, important classics can nuke the box office fridge.
'The Iron Giant' is one of the latter. An excellent movie that tested through the roof and had all the makings of an animated blockbuster akin to era-classics like 'The Lion King' and 'Aladdin', but one that suffered because its visionary director pushed for an earlier release while the studio was either ignoring or poorly marketing the project.
But it was also a film released on VHS, DVD, and Laserdisc at a time when physical media was still a growing market, and something funny happened. People found 'The Iron Giant'. Fell in love it. Shared it. Bought it. Rented it over and over. So much so that it earned itself a Special Edition DVD as well as, late last year, a 4K restoration and theatrical re-release with two new scenes.
'The Iron Giant' lived happily ever after, enchanting children of all ages, but serves as a cautionary tale for filmmakers, studios, and audiences alike. For us film fans, I would encourage our readers to ignore the weekly spectator sport of box office reporting. It fuels expectations and tribalism, both of which muddy your chances of being open to all sorts of movies and TV shows. Because, whether or not the numbers are high or low, what matters most is whether or not you connect to a piece of art. If a film can make you FEEL something, then I'd consider it a success. If it can't, it's time to move on (for you, at least; there's always a chance someone else will fall in love with what doesn't float your boat).
Back to the movie itself. Co-written and directed by animation wunderkind Brad Bird -- you may know him from his work on 'Ratatouile', 'The Incredibles', 'Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol', or 'Tomorrowland' -- 'The Iron Giant' is a hand-drawn fable that asks a heartbreaking question: what if a gun found out it was a gun and didn't want to kill anymore?
In this case, the gun is the Giant, a massive, sentient metal man from outer space who crash lands in the picturesque small town of Rockwell, Maine amidst the Red Scare days of the cold war. The giant befriends a lonely little boy named Hogarth, who lives with his single mother and really wants a pet, and learns the difference between life and death and what it means to have a soul. Along the way a government agent arrives to investigate, hoping to capture the giant to finally earn respect from from his peers, which sets Hogarth and the Giant's friendship on a collision course with some pretty serious consequences, all while testing that thematic question we asked above.
I hate to admit it. I too missed the film's theatrical release even though I was working at a movie theatre at the time. Which is a shame because 'The Iron Giant' is a pretty extraordinary movie that deserves to be revisited often. As such, if you have not seen it, stop reading now and skip down to the next section. You should watch it with as few expectations as possible.
MINOR SPOILERS to follow.
How to breakdown 'The Iron Giant'. Technically, the movie is a throw back to the styles of Walt Disney-produced animation. Brad Bird studied under the guidance of Disney's Nine Old Men, and it shows. On the same hand, you can see Bird's visual style emerging, from his character design to his tonal qualities to his action pacing, in ways that evoke the coming of 'The Incredibles'. In a way, Bird is reverential of past techniques, but passionate about evolving the medium. The whole production feels hand made, and that's a wonderful thing. Were it not for certain computer graphics and the immersive soundtrack (more on this below), you'd be hard pressed to nail down exactly when it was produced.
Emotionally, this film is on par with 'E.T.' in the way it blends coming of age thematics with the heartbreak of saying goodbye to friends. Your children are going to love this movie, but they're probably also going to cry. But that's okay. It's important to learn about these things in the way we watched 'Bambi', 'E.T.', and 'The Lion King' (among others).
TONE is probably the hardest thing to lock down in film, particularly in movies that dare to dip their toes into multiple tones, and this one delivers over and over again. One minute you're in awe, the next chuckling or white-knuckling the remote, or bawling your eyes out. 'The Iron Giant' also offers thrilling (and often stunning) set-pieces for action junkies, and oodles of visual gags and other forms of slapstick for comedy fans. In that sense, there's a lot here for people of every age to enjoy.
'The Iron Giant' is an impressive animated feature debut by a very talented filmmaker who took a rag-tag group of animators with a bare-bones budget, and made what many have hailed as a masterpiece. Bird and his team and their film even managed to survive bombing at the theatrical box office before finding new life in home video. For this I am thankful, because the world's a better place 'The Iron Giant' in it.
Vital Disc Stats: the Blu-ray
'The Iron Giant' Signature Edition arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment in a one-disc package. There is no slipcover, Digital HD, or DVD copy. Inside this standard Blu-ray case, you'll find one BD50 that houses two cuts of the film as well as all the Bonus Materials. The Signature Edition runs 01:29:58 (versus the Original Edition's 01:26:39) and includes two new scenes -- The Giant's Dream and a moment with Annie and Dean at the diner -- as well as a nod to 'Tomorrowland' when the Giant's hand is watching TV in Hogarth's house.
One note about the menu design. I like the simplicity, but there's no RESUME PLAY feature so any time you power down, want to swap to a different cut of the movie, watch a Special Feature, or engage Audio Commentary, the movie starts over at the beginning. This takes away from the overall ergonomics.
An Ultimate Collector's Edition is also available. This $74.99 MSRP set adds a DVD, a Digital HD copy, a letter from Director Brad Bird to the fans, five Mondo Art Cards, a 32-Page Book, and a collectible Iron Giant Figurine.
'The Iron Giant' flies onto Blu-ray with a resplendent AVC MPEG-4 encode framed in the film's original 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
While CG animation dazzles HD and UHD displays, I adore the way hand-drawn animation looks in high definition where, in some cases and depending on the print you saw back in the day, the image quality could be brighter, cleaner, and more vibrant than the initial theatrical release. The best way to describe it is as a painting coming to life. It FEELS equal parts hand made and true magic.
'The Iron Giant' does everything well save for black levels, which are more of a dark grey, and a few soft moments of soft focus. Outside that, however, colors pop, creating a vivid sense of this animated world. The image is strikingly clear, a big step up over the HD versions you've seen via streaming services or cable. In terms of other flaws, I didn't see any severe banding or macro-blocking or dirt and debris. I imagine this HD encode is as close to downloading the movie out of Brad Bird's mind as we'll get.
While I would have loved to see 'The Iron Giant' get the 4K Ultra HD treatment (even if just on VUDU), this Blu-ray is gorgeous and everyone involved should be proud.
'The Iron Giant' roars onto Blu-ray with a robust 5.1 DTS-HA Master Audio soundtrack that features excellent dynamic range, engaging surround panning, and thundering LFE.
While I would have loved this film to have been up-mixed to 7.1 or Dolby Atmos for its theatrical and home entertainment re-releases, there's very little to complain about on this track. Heck, when you compare it to some Atmos tracks like 'The Gunman' or 'American Sniper', this late '90s mix keeps up nicely.
Vocalizations are crisp and clear, while the Giant's voice evokes a grander scale. Dynamic range is excellent, whether the mix is recreating quiet forest locations or raging storms or the weapons-heavy climax. The LFE is deep and forceful; every time the Giant takes a steps, the room thunders. Lastly, I was also impressed with the way the sound designers panned various effects. Sometimes this was done to evoke off-screen character placement, and other times the mix was action-picture aggressive.
The only thing holding it back is that I've heard a few tracks that are a wee bit more aggressive, and a little bit more delicate in the sound design itself. But, given the film's 1999 origins, surround sound fans are gonna dig this one.
Oh, and for anyone with Dolby Surround or DTS:Neural:X capable AV Receivers, this soundtrack up-mixes wonderfully -- particularily during the action or weather-heavy scenes -- and offers more immersion than some native mixes.
'The Iron Giant' was released on DVD twice prior (along with Laserdisc and VHS) -- the first time in 1999 following the film's theatrical release, and a 2004 Special Edition. I don't have either on hand to compare directly, but it appears as though everything from BOTH releases has been ported over for this Blu-ray. In the Special Features menu, most are marked 2004 or 1999 Vintage. Overall it's a nice set, but it's mostly SD material and nothing is really in depth, which makes the HD Exclusive (below) feel extra special.
Commentary with Director Brad Bird, Head of Animation Tony Fucile, Story Department Head Jeff Lynch and Animation Supervisor (Giant) Steven Markowski. The Original Edition commentary was recorded for the 2004 DVD -- it's quite informative, but there are some dead spots -- while Bird came back to record commentary for the added scenes in the Signature Edition.
Deleted Scenes with Introduction by Brad Bird (SD, 15:16). Six animated storyboards depict earlier versions of the film.
Original Opening Sequence
The Drag Race
Tired at Breakfast
Original Introduction to Hogarth & Annie
Teddy Newton The X Factor (SD, 5:38). A guy from the film's story department with a wild imagination.
Duck and Cover Sequence (SD, 2:23). The nuclear bomb instructional film within the film.
The Voices of 'The Iron Giant' (SD, 8:16). A look at the actors behind these characters.
The Voice of the Giant
The Score (SD, 4:49). A look at the film's music in three scenes.
Kent & Hogarth
Behind the Armor (SD, 17:31). A collection of short featurettes produced for the Special Edition DVD.
The Warner Bros. Logo
The Origin of the Giant
The Origin of the Movie
Bringing the Giant to Life
Storyboard and Animatics
The Battle Sequence
Motion Gallery (SD, 4:22). Clips from the movie intercut with concept art and animatics.
Vintage Easter Eggs (SD, 1:48). Not 100% on this, but I believe these six clips were hidden on the Special Edition DVD.
The Making of 'The Iron Giant' (SD, 22:05). The original DVD's making-of documentary. This has much more of an EPK feel.
'The Iron Giant' on Blu-ray was well worth the wait. This thematic fable remains as crowd-pleasing and emotionally resonant as the day it was first released. The Blu-ray delivers resplendent HD video, evoking the film's painterly aesthetic, as well as a marvelous 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack (that upmixes wonderfully with DTS:Neural:X). On top of that, there's a stunning new documentary to watch as well as what appears to be all the bonus materials from the 1999 and 2004 DVD releases.
While I would have loved to see this film in UHD and/or with Dolby Atmos, 'The Iron Giant' Signature Edition Blu-ray comes highly, highly recommended for film fans of all ages. If you happen to be an Iron Giant mega-fan, then definitely check out the Ultimate Collector's Edition and all of its included goodies.