Equally potent as political allegory and as animated family entertainment, Brad Bird's freshman feature, cleverly set in 1950s small-town America, effectively references everything from Cold War ideology to B-movie conventions, but it never loses sight of its central narrative hook, the friendship of a boy and a giant robot.

A visually appealing, well-crafted film, “The Iron Giant” is an unalloyed success that works on several levels. Equally potent as political allegory and as animated family entertainment, Brad Bird’s ambitious, intelligent freshman feature, cleverly set in 1950s small-town America, effectively references everything from Cold War ideology to B-movie conventions, but it never loses sight of its central narrative hook, the friendship of a boy and a giant robot. Pic should expect to do healthy domestic B.O. as it crosses demographic lines, though it should find particular resonance among young boys.

If “The Iron Giant” sounds familiar, it’s because the story has previously had literary, musical and theatrical incarnations. Originally published in England as “The Iron Man” (and later Americanized as “The Iron Giant,”) Ted Hughes’ 1968 children’s book inspired a 1989 album by the Who’s Pete Townshend. Four years later the album gave rise to a stage version at London’s Old Vic. After theatrical producer Des McAnuff, who had worked with Townshend to bring “Tommy” to the stage, began developing a screen adaptation, the rights ultimately went to Warner Bros. Home to the Superman copyright (which it refers to in the new pic), Warners aims to couch the Iron Giant as a sort of fellow superhero and might well have its eye on a franchise.

Pic is set in the fictional town of Rockwell, Maine, a place so peaceful and picturesque that its inhabitants might have leaped off the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. There, in a local diner, single mom Annie Hughes (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) works as a waitress, often staying late, to the disappointment of her 9-year-old son, Hogarth. A spirited outsider who’s shunned by his peers, Hogarth (energetically voiced by Eli Marienthal) has a mind for mischief and adventure, whether he’s spinning stories of attempted takeovers by aliens or watching terrifying films on TV (fittingly rendered in black-and-white).

When his TV reception suddenly goes awry, Hogarth climbs up on the roof, only to discover that the antenna is gone. He soon spots a massive steel creature with an appetite for metal that leads him through the woods and to a local power plant. Pumped up with an eerie, evocative musical score, this sequence makes a smooth transition from the televised horror film that preceded it.

Though frightened, the daring Hogarth is undeterred. When the Iron Giant becomes entangled in the power lines, the boy saves the creature from certain electrocution by hitting the emergency shutdown switch. Apparently capable of feelings, the gentle gray behemoth thanks the boy by becoming his protector and friend. Hogarth teaches him rudimentary speech (voiced in low, mechanically enhanced tones by Vin Diesel) and takes him to a scrap metal yard run by a friendly local beatnik named Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), where the giant can find plenty to eat.

It soon becomes difficult to conceal the Iron Giant, and when word gets out that a mammoth creature of unknown origin may be in their midst, Rockwell officials notify the government. Tall, angular, trigger-happy fed Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) arrives and soon proves himself the film’s irrepressible bad guy. This being the McCarthy era, the deeply suspicious Mansley has people believing the creature may be a Russian secret weapon, and he mobilizes government forces to destroy it.

However, the giant, whose origins are never explained, is not an offensive weapon but is programmed to strike defensively only; when attacked, it can unleash a cannonball of fire. But Hogarth gives the giant a lesson in arms control that seems directly targeted at the NRA: “Guns kill,” the boy tells his friend sternly. With Mansley and the armed forces pursuing the giant and ready to fire, pic sets up a final, suspenseful confrontation that forces the giant into a difficult and heart-tugging decision.

Making expert use of 1950s ideology, with the atom bomb looming over everything, helmer and co-scripter Bird has done a deft job transposing Hughes’ story into an effective Cold War context. Still, despite its p.c., humanistic overtones, the film manages to integrate the humor and action of a kid’s adventure tale and the message of a political allegory without beingheavy-handed.

Voicing, animation (blending CGI and traditional techniques) and tech elements are fine throughout, with the only real flaw being that characters’ faces are sometimes less expressive and intricately rendered than their Disney counterparts.

The Iron Giant

Production

A Warner Bros. release. Produced by Allison Abbate, Des McAnuff. Executive producer, Pete Townshend. Directed by Brad Bird. Screenplay, Tim McCanlies; story, Bird, based on the book "The Iron Man" by Ted Hughes.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Mark Dinicola; editor, Darren T. Holmes; music, Michael Kamen; production designer, Mark Whiting; art director, Alan Bodner; sound (Dolby DTS; SDDS), Randy Thom; head of animation, Tony Fucile; artistic coordinator, Scott F. Johnston; associate producer, John Walker; casting, Marci Liroff. Reviewed at Warner Bros. studios, Burbank, July 16, 1999. MPAA Rating: G. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Voices: Annie Hughes - Jennifer Aniston Hogarth Hughes - Eli Marienthal Dean McCoppin - Harry Connick Jr. The Iron Giant - Vin Diesel Kent Mansley - Christopher McDonald Marv Loach/Floyd Turbeaux - James Gammon Mrs. Tensedge - Cloris Leachman General Rogard - John Mahoney Earl Stutz - M. Emmet Walsh
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