It’s hard to pinpoint when a film becomes a family classic. For my family, like many others, what seems to connect all of our disparate tastes is humor. Some of my earliest memories are of us watching movies together and laughing uproariously at a joke we’re seeing for the first or even the fifth time. Growing up, my siblings and I may have had overlaps with some of the shows we watched but our movie choices were uniquely our own and there was little crossover. The Iron Giant was a movie my brother loved first before we as a family came to fall in love with it too. I don’t think I truly knew how much my family adored the movie until a few years ago when I happened to find online an artist’s alternative poster for it that I shared with them. Both of my parents, who have seen their fair share of kids’ movies that they have forgotten, immediately remembered this one with almost no prompting.
While the film definitely has its lighter, funny moments, I think the emotional story was what hooked my family and made us remember it all these years later. When we meet Hogarth (Eli Marienthal), he’s just an adventurous kid who’s a little high-spirited but well-meaning. He can be grating, lovable, spontaneous at any moment, and he feels like a real kid, getting to know his way around the world. All of his too-much-ness and various antics, though, land him in quite a bit of trouble sometimes with those in his small town. His mother, an endlessly patient waitress (Jennifer Aniston) named Annie, loves him but even she can’t handle him all the time.
Friendless and lonely, we feel and root for him. When he meets the Iron Giant after its arrival from space, it looks like Hogarth has met his match; often unafraid, we see him genuinely frightened of the robot during their introduction in the forest. However, they soon begin to bond and eventually become friends as Hogarth introduces the giant to his world. We see through their eyes the brutality and kinder nature of humanity as they explore together. Government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), however — who comes into town and is convinced there’s something that Hogarth is hiding from him — seeks to find and destroy the Iron Giant and is hellbent on violence as a solution.
The plot does feel at times very reminiscent of a classic Steven Spielberg movie, with the kids opening their hearts to an alien, the alien gaining the simple wonder of children, the government being an unfeeling and uncaring apparatus that uses force to address issues, and the family dynamic of a single parent or fractured family. It’s impossible not to see some overlap if you’ve watched E.T., but ultimately there’s quite a distinction between this character and Spielberg’s young band of kids in the former film. The characters in Spielberg’s movies always seem to have or find a community that rallies around them. In Iron Giant, Hogarth and the robot are completely alone, and while Dean, a local artist (Harry Connick, Jr.), later joins their cause, they mostly remain a small group. This film is less about friend groups and more about individual friendship, belonging, and the understanding that can be reached between two people. The film also deals more directly with issues of violence and how it is perpetuated within society as a default action when faced with confusion or a misunderstanding; although the film is set in the 1950s, the messaging on violence still feels timeless.
In one of Vin Diesel’s first voice acting roles, he has few lines as the giant (something which is repeated in his current role of Groot in the Guardians of the Galaxy universe), but what he does say is impactful. Through Hogarth’s friendship and love, the giant learns kindness. I won’t spoil the end for anyone, but I’ll leave you with a quote that defines the overall meaning of the movie: “You are who you choose to be.”
Noni Ford is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She’s worked in voice coordination, independent film, and literary management, and primarily writes film criticism and short stories. She’s currently pursuing a Masters degree at IU’s Luddy School and is an IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Fellow.