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Disney is getting fierce competition in the animated feature department these days. In 1998, that established purveyor of classic cartoons Warner Bros gave us the Arthurian mish-mash of Quest For Camelot, and DreamWorks stepped into the arena with The Prince Of Egypt. But The House Of Mouse is now swinging lithely through the trees with the Um Bongo kinetics and splendid hi-tech animation of Tarzan. So what's next from the opposition? Well, Warner Bros has ostensibly taken us back to basics with The Iron Giant, a glorious fable from The Simpsons and King Of The Hill graduate Brad Bird.
During the '60s, Ted Hughes created The Iron Man, a lyrical fantasy about life and death, to tell his children after the suicide of their mother, angsty poet Sylvia Plath. Bird has taken the story of a boy and his metal behemoth and recreated it in small-town '50s America. Rather than being a sacrilegious Americanisation of a British fave, the transition is shrewd, tapping the rich vein of myths and memories from its post-war US setting.
Cold War paranoia is explored, atomic bomb safety films are mocked and there are even echoes of Golden Age comic strips. Plus there's the Empire Strikes Back moment, the Superman themes, King Kong parallels and, most obviously, the ET-style misunderstood-boy-and-his-best-friend-from-outer-space plot line. All of which adds to the joy of the flick, rather than smothering the simple narrative at its heart. And Bird's background in satire means there's a good dose of knowing humour.
Hogarth's parenting of the amnesiac big guy is presented with quaint-looking but effective animation. Onlythe Giant is computer-generated, cleverly emphasising his otherworldliness and, despite the retro look, his function as a hi-tech weapon. (Making the Giant a "gun with a soul" is Bird's most fundamental addition to the story.) This is only fully revealed - Transformers-style - when slimy G-man Mansley convinces his superiors the metal man is some dastardly threat to wholesome America and sets the military on him.
The movie is touching and at times hilarious - with Hogarth speeding on espresso or the Giant `bombing' into a lake. Warbled ballads are mercifully avoided, the action is well-paced and the robo-adventure gathers momentum effectively, leading up to a dramatic finale involving an A-bomb and some wonderful visuals. By the time the epilogue provides its hopeful hints, you've been given laughs, tears and food for thought. All of that in a picture aimed at kids.
Without Disney's formula and with classic animation techniques, The Iron Giant successfully recreates The Iron Man in '50s America as the story of a lonely boy's dreams coming true. Film-brat knowingness, action, satire, sentiment, laughs: they're all here.