"We live in a strange and wondrous time," says a character in the animated film The Iron Giant, "but there's a dark side to progress." This pithy tagline, delivered in the middle of an ersatz-Red Scare sermon, goes by with such putative wholesomeness that we don't immediately align its wisdom with the movie's more tender carpe diem and altruistic themes. This subtlety, however, proves integral to the success of director/story master Brad Bird's moral universe; how often in children's entertainment is the "lesson" telegraphed by the villain, and couched between toxically dubious, self-absorbed claims? As proposed to nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) by buffoon-y, if sympathetic, GI man Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), sporting a sinisterly acute-angle chin and a Conan O'Brien-colored pompadour, "progress" is a finite natural resource to be hoarded for one's self and protected from perpetually imminent attack. And yet, within this frightful, and frightfully boneheaded, monologue is the pulp of the film's rare emotional intelligence: Growing up requires occasionally yielding to, if not the stark darkness, then the bewildering gray of interpersonal ethics.
Set in a gentle appropriation of the 1950s where quasi-beats run suburban scrap yards and single parents can still effectively child-rear in workaday absentia, The Iron Giant isn't a Cold War allegory so much as an Americana fairy tale; like a younger, slightly more gullible sibling of Donald Fagan's nostalgic concept album The Nightfly, the movie swallows the myth of the era's Wheaties-style sincerity with a grinning gulp. It was based on a British novel, and inspired by a musical adaptation by the Who's Pete Townshend, but smartly reconfigured from nearly the premise upward by Bird and screenwriter Tim McCanlies. They dropped the ecological barbs, a Hobbit-like dragon showdown, and Townshend's plot-stultifying songs to fashion a narrative that's strangely both more specific than the source material—with regard, especially, to period and regional detail—and more universally resonant. The script and delicate art direction are less concerned with the '50s as they were than in how the '50s saw themselves—as evinced by comics, magazine ads, television shows—and how that benign self-image has trickled down through the decades into shorthand for conformity despite the ghostly mushroom clouds of alarm behind the cheerful façade.
When the Iron Giant (a heavily treated Vin Deisel) crash-lands in Maine at the movie's start without much exposition, it seems to follow the off-kilter logic that we'll learn governs this globe; remarkably, we never do learn where the titular behemoth comes from. Hogarth, a latchkey kid and expert with disaster-prone pets, encounters and befriends him, teaching him a few words of English. But the metal man appears to grasp more of language's empowering aura than its concrete semiotics, and a bump to his circuitry has left him amnesiac. He is, like Melville's Bartleby, an existential threat more than a physical one, and his relentlessly alien nature—Bartleby can't help but deny requests, the giant can't help but defend himself—makes him a target for (in this case FBI-mandated) banishment. The giant thus represents, in some ways, the birth of Pixar's borderline exploitative, sociopolitical dumb-playing (Bird would move to their studios soon after this film flopped at the box office): The timeliness of a sentient doomsday machine who must overcome his annihilating nature can't be denied any more than that of a lovesick robot who shovels the earth's refuse. Here, however, larger-than-life atomic terrorism becomes a catalyst for mostly believable growth ("I am not a gun," our robotic hero eventually says in defiance of his maker); the "dark side to progress" represented by Mansley's giant-hunt and subsequent brandishing of selfishness really does have plausibly catastrophic ramifications.
There's a downside to progress here, too, in the technical sense. Affectionately drawn in Cinemascope, The Iron Giant's visual design has wit to spare: a sci-fi B-movie star who looks like Burt Lancaster and talks like Rod Serling; Hogarth's Feivel Mousekewitz ears; Mansley's spastic, blubbering outbursts. The clanking creature itself, however, has an awkward dopiness about it, exacerbated by the not-quite-integrated 3D vectors in which he was animated, and scenes in which he interacts with two-dimensional characters have a jarring flatness to them; one can discern each of the planate layers that imply the film's depth. But Bird compensates for this with intuitive, film-like camera movement, some of which effectively synchronizes with Hogarth's development. (Toward the film's beginning he's often framed in downward, condescending tilts; after his experience "parenting" the giant and acting as its protectorate, he's observed from beneath.)
Bird's often praised as a storyteller par excellence; The Incredibles was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar, and his obsessive fidelity to plot arc in early Simpsons episodes organized and sharpened the program's distinctive humor. But The Iron Giant's apparent looseness in spite of its brevity might be his most impressive writerly achievement. As Hogarth and his gargantuan buddy hide out in the scrapheap sanctuary of local hipster and aluminum sculptor Dean (Harry Connick Jr.), their meandering lakeside playtime produces quiet, personal breakthroughs. Hogarth loves the giant, so he instructs and fosters its struggle for agency against manipulative programming; the giant's agape toward Hogarth is strangely like that of a thankful Adam who's just partaken of the forbidden, eye-opening fruit. (Hogarth makes good and evil so attractively simple as a choice between Superman and the evil comic-book automaton Atomo that the giant retracts his unstoppable, self-repairing arsenal.) The giant's final sacrifice in the face of unintentional, U.S.-initiated nuclear holocaust is the triumphant inverse of Dr. Strangelove's smirking masochism: What we love most are the things that protect us from ourselves.