Netflixing: The Iron Giant

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Since I’ve started Netflixing, I’ve reviewed one or two properties that were on the brink of being removed from the platform.

Today, I will review a film that has barely been added to Netflix, in the form of The Iron Giant.

Why it has been added to Netflix’s lineup out of the blue is anyone’s guess, but the movie seems to have attracted a fresh wave of attention recently. For some unfathomable reason.

It’s a mystery.

But in any case, it is now streaming. And seeing an opportunity to exploit…


Seeing an opportunity to share the current nostalgic reexamination of the film, I have decided to make it the subject of this week’s review.

But if we’re going to understand The Iron Giant, we need to first be aware of its director and its history.

Brad Bird and the Disney Renaissance

When Walt Disney died, animated feature films suffered a near-fatal blow.

And while Disney was undeniably one of history’s greatest entrepreneurs, the Disney style of leadership was ultimately destructive to his company.

Business writer Jim Collins calls this approach the “Genius with a Thousand Helpers” model of leadership, where a company’s success depends upon the brilliance of a single person at the top of the organization, and the unquestioning obedience of everyone beneath him. This model has been responsible for the success of many companies over the years (another example would be Steve Jobs at Apple Computers), but it suffers from one obvious Achilles heel: what do you do when the “genius” leaves the company?

If the company is anything like Disney, then the answer is “wander the wilderness for forty years”. The company continued to make animated features after Walt’s death, but it would be decades before those films would start busting blocks again. And this dearth extended not only to Disney-produced films but to animated features across the board. Studios weren’t willing to give large budgets to what were seen as profitless ventures.

So when the Disney renaissance began in 1989, and the company’s movies started making bank again, a large number of non-Disney studios started producing animation, as a way of riding the Mouse’s coattails.

But too many of these simply tried to copy what Disney was doing. Which was foolish, because nobody can beat Disney at making Disney movies.

Are you proud of yourselves?

So Brad Bird had to try extra hard to convince Warner Bros. that the correct approach was to make a departure from the Disney formula. He stepped away from the schmaltzy, showtuney, grandiose themes and motifs of the Disney renaissance to make something a little more Spielbergian.

The result was The Iron Giant—a film defined, and hampered, by the idea of what it was trying not to be.

The Plot

It’s E.T., except the alien is a robot.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by much.

The story is an almost beat-for-beat retelling of Spielberg’s most beloved film. We get the same misunderstood youngster who needs a friend, the same ordeal of trying to conceal the creature’s existence from the child’s mother, the same evil government people who cause problems for everyone, and even the same revelation, at the tail end of the movie, that the alien creature can fly, and who then flies off with the misunderstood youngster.

The biggest plot difference comes from largely unimportant details between the two creatures. E.T. was a diminutive goblin with the power to restore life to wilted flowers. The Iron Giant is a 100-foot-tall robot who can laser entire cities to the ground. You would think that this difference in their powers would result in wildly different plotting, yet that doesn’t quite materialize here.

You could argue that The Iron Giant plays up the Cold War backdrop of the story, but E.T. also takes place during the Cold War and is inevitably influenced by the paranoia of the time, even if it plays that card with more subtlety.

But if we ignore the similarities of plot, and focus only on the quality of these two movies, then they could not be more different.

The Problem of Mediocrity

Brad Bird is a fantastic director.

This is the man who gave us The Incredibles and Ratatouille (ironically both properties owned by Disney). His films often possess a modern sensibility while still reveling in fantasy, and it works. He is a hitmaker, both in years past and the present day.

But The Iron Giant is a mediocre movie.

I’m pretty sure I first watched it on Cartoon Network, or perhaps on VHS. I certainly never saw it in the theater, and I was not alone. The film performed poorly with critics and audiences alike.

And I remember, at the time, thinking of it much like how I thought of Quest for CamelotFern Gully, and a host of other animated features from the 90s—just another cash grab by people who didn’t know how to tell a story. That anyone now speaks of this movie with nostalgic reverence leaves me scratching my head. It certainly seems undeserving of cult-classic status.

Honestly, its problems are just too glaring to overlook. If I might list a few:

  • The voice acting is forced and unconvincing.
  • The villain is a shallow stereotype given no development.
  • The characters don’t invite us into their lives or give us more than superficial reasons to care about them.
  • The pacing is not cohesive. The story is more a sequence of events than a flowing narrative.
  • A number of scenes feel oddly clipped, as if something longer was originally planned.
  • Emotional moments are unearned and undeserved. I almost laughed out loud when, near the end, the kid tells the robot “I love you,” like it was supposed to be some culminating event in the story, when it was unsupported by anything that came before.
  • A completely unnecessary character in the form of Dean, who adds nothing to the story and could be edited out even now without damaging the film (I’m tempted to try this). Yet he has a startling amount of screen time.

And it’s just not that good of a movie. We’ve seen the whole “forbidden pet” story played out so much better in so many other places. If you hold The Iron Giant up against E.T. or How to Train Your Dragon, the many cracks in the film are easy to see.

One Shining Exception

The one good thing I can say about this film is that the animation is beautiful.

It’s important to point that out, particularly now, due to the loss (and it is a loss, in the tragic sense) of hand drawn animation in the cinematic landscape (at least in the USA). Yes, we encountered a lot of second-rate animated films in the 1990s. No, we should not abandon the art form simply because it can be abused this way.

I believe most of the nostalgic pining for this film comes from the beauty of the artwork and animation. The visual aspects, at least, were a labor of love, and indicative of the quality we would continue to get from Brad Bird as he moved on to bigger and better projects.

My Judgment

The Iron Giant is a missable movie.

It saddens me to say that, but it’s true. For all the chances this movie took, trying to be its own thing instead of copying other animated movies of its time, it did not do enough to distinguish itself as a great film.

I want to believe that if Brad Bird had been given free reign with this project, it would have been on the same level as The Incredibles. There was certainly a lot of potential in the bones of the plot, but the execution left much to be desired.

If you don’t catch it on Netflix, you’re not missing much. And with the wealth of other animated projects to be found here, it’s hard for me to recommend it to anyone.

But if you’re curious, after watching Ready Player One, to see what all the fuss is about, then I guess you can give it a whirl. Though I doubt you’ll watch it more than once.