AFED #84: The Iron Giant (US, 1999); The Incredibles (US, 2004); Dir. Brad Bird

I'd originally intended for this to be a review solely of The Iron Giant but decided taking in The Incredibles as well would make for both an interesting comparison between traditional and computer animation, and also how director Brad Bird made a successful jump across to the newer format.

I'm highlighting Bird, because as the writer/director it's reasonable to consider him the guiding creative influence behind the two films, but it's notable that when he made the move from Warners to Pixar he took the Iron Giant's animation team with him. Inevitably a prolonged period of adapting to the new medium ensued, but the final result (The Incredibles) represented a visceral and stylistic leap forward in Pixar's house style after the more sedate Toy Story franchise, et al.

Given that it's been sitting amongst my dvd collection unwatched for a few years now, I'd not appreciated The Iron Giant was released as far back as 1999 and that Ted Hughes, whose celebrated children's tale The Iron Man it loosely adapts, had served as a creative consultant. Relocating the story to late fifties America, it wisely dispenses with the original's outlandish 'space dragon' chapter and focuses on the relationship between the robot and the boy, Hogarth (here christened Hogarth Hughes) in a story that's ostensibly a homage to Cold War sci-fi, with a big dollop of E.T. thrown in for good measure.

Hogarth is a lonely boy who lives with his single mother Annie (Jennifer Anniston) in the small town Rockwell (presumably a nod to Roswell) on the Maine coast. One night he discovers a giant robot trying the devour the local power station. The pair strike up a friendship and Hogarth sets about educating the child-like giant in the ways of the world.

He finds an accomplice in in beatnik artist (and scrapyard owner) Dean (smoothly voiced by Harry Connick Jr), who helps with satiating the giant's desire for metal. But meanwhile villainous government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) is hot on the trail of sightings of a monster. When he finally extracts the evidence he needs Kent calls in the army, but it turns out the when antagonised the giant isn't always so benevolent.

It's a perfectly judged little story, with a poignant ending that milks sentimentality, but not excessively so. Yet what really distinguishes the film is the obvious affection for the period and wealth of incidental details. At school Hogarth's class watches a public information film about what to do in the event of a nuclear strike (shelter under the table and you'll miraculously survive getting atomised), while on tv he sees a film that looks like homage to Fiend Without a Face. Even the animation is evocative of an earlier time.

Many of those observations might equally apply to The Incredibles. Although it's far grander in scope and ambition, Bird's superhero comedy is almost of game of spotting the various references; the most obvious influences are the Fantastic Four, Watchmen and the Bond series but at one point he even throws in a nod to Battleship Potemkin!

As somebody who hasn't watched many CG animations (I'll try and fit in one or two more Pixars before the year's end) it's fascinating to watch how the challenge of three-dimensional rendering is negotiated. I still incline to the view that the rendering of characters is at times rather 'blocky', as though they've been assembled from shapes, and there's a really cringeworthy moment late on when one of the characters descends some stairs that illustrates just how difficult it remains to capture human movement.

But animation is such a kenetic medium that the flaws are easily overlooked and they've always been part of the charm. Where The Incredibles really distinguishes itself is the scope and ambition of the production; this is a big, brash blockbuster (a $90m budget, no less) that just happens to have been animated.

Pixar had already developed an appreciation that you can mix broader comedy with more sophisticated wit, but Bird's script takes it that step further. There's such a wealth of cute lines here that it would be impossible to catch them all on a single viewing; home video is certainly a blessing in that regard. Bird has commented that the story was inspired by his own travails in adapting to parenthood and the way that wizened cynicism gradually yields to pure fun and adventure would appear to mirror that catharsis.

Ultimately though I return to the details and references for the source of the film's pleasures. From the opening 'footage' of a young Mr Incredible being interviewed through to the appearance of the Underminer (if you know the Fantastic Four then you'll get it) then it's a great ride.


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