The effectiveness, indeed the near inescapability of the Disney marketing juggernaut can cause some to miss non-Mouse sources of children’s media, as well as individual productions whose appeal lies precisely in their departures from what the boys in Burbank would have you consider the norm. But there are alternatives out there, including well crafted and pleasing commercial ones, and it is important, for the sake of diversity and a fair shake all around, to seek them out. Here’s one of the best. The Iron Giant is a very free, very fine adaptation of Ted Hughes’ seminal children’s book, The Iron Man. (Readers will be richly rewarded if they look up the source and consider similarities and differences, as well as their various implications.) This version is set on the American east coast during the 1950s, and in addition to treating the source’s themes of friendship, free will and sacrifice, Brad Bird’s film brings an agenda of its own to the table.
First, as might be expected from an alumnus of The Simpsons, this film contains plenty of social and even, quite pointedly, political satire. The film is concerned with the idea of aggression, with the proliferation of weaponry and what it does to the individuals and the communities that are inevitably affected by it. (By the way, that’s Vin Diesel providing the voice of the iron giant!) It deals presciently with the reasons for and dangers of xenophobia—fear of the other—and it is very good on the vulnerability and virtue of children. They are not only the victims of adult escalation, but their openness and example might help lead us out of it. This is timely stuff, heady material for a kids’ movie, and it is potentially divisive too. Some viewers will not appreciate the perspective presented here. They might note, however, that it is feelingly and openly presented, and if integrity is a matter of honourably expressing and acting on your beliefs, then this integritous work might just inspire appreciation and comprehension at the same time that it engenders ideological opposition. It certainly provides a effective entry into discussions about the cold war, the nuclear age, political blacklisting, and how history seems to repeat itself.
Lest this all sound too serious, The Iron Giant is also very funny. Its Simpsons-derived ribaldry will delight youngsters, though it’s well to point out that their guardians may not be quite as pleased. Here’s one that parents should see first. (Note particularly the film’s parental guidance level language. It seems clear that no offense is intended by this dialogue—lots of people talk this way, without thinking too much about it—but sensitive viewers may well feel troubled.) On the other hand, the film’s conclusion is a rich and moving sacrifice that will especially resonate with Christian viewers, who will find much to discuss, and many grateful parallels to draw in the aftermath. Perhaps this is a film that, like the wavering and wonderful people with whom we associate, and whom we love, deserves to be forgiven its trespasses, since they are so outweighed by its many merits.