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Warner Home Video presents
The Iron Giant: SE (1999)

"Wow, my own giant robot! I am now the luckiest kid in America! This must be the biggest discovery since, I don't know, television or something!"
- Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal)

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: December 07, 2004

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel, Eli Marienthal
Other Stars: James Gammon, Cloris Leachman, John Mahoney, Christopher McDonald, M. Emmet Walsh
Director: Brad Bird

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: PG for fantasy action and mild language
Run Time: 01h:26m:28s
Release Date: November 16, 2004
UPC: 085391831822
Genre: animation


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A A-A-A- B

DVD Review

Before he proved himself a CGI animation superhero with The Incredibles, director Brad Bird made a name for himself with The Iron Giant, a hand-drawn feature from Warner Bros. that flopped at the box office but garnered enthusiastic critical reviews and won 12 Annie Awards (the Oscars of the animation world) in 1999. The picture, a family film that really will appeal to everyone in the family, has gathered a devoted following in the years since thanks to smart storytelling, appealing characters, and a plot that makes its point without getting too preachy.

Loosely (and I mean loosely) based on Ted Hughes' obtuse children's story The Iron Man, the film mixes equal parts E.T. and cold war paranoia. The pint-sized hero, Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), has chosen to dull the pain of losing his father and being skipped ahead a grade in school by keeping his head in the cosmos—he's obsessed with comics about alien invaders, and convinced he's due for a visit from invaders from Mars, or worse, the newly launched Russian satellite, Sputnik.

It's the former that turns up first. Hogarth is home alone one night when his TV goes on the fritz; he investigates, only to discover the antenna on the roof seems to have been bitten off. He goes out searching, BB gun in tow, only to encounter the Iron Giant himself (voiced by action star Vin Diesel). The fearsome, towering terror, much of its programming apparently damaged in a crash-landing, turns out to be rather harmless, but quickly takes a liking to Hogarth, managing to imitate his actions and even begin to learn English. Hogarth, of course, thinks he's just found the world's coolest toy, and fails to consider the possibility that the giant might have been created, and sent to Earth, for far more nefarious reasons than making nice with the locals.

Bird's script does borrow quite a bit from E.T., as Hogarth works to keep the giant secret from his mother (Jennifer Aniston) in a number of comic scenes—the two eventually hide out at the local junkyard, owned by the local beatnik artist/outcast Dean (Harry Connick, Jr.), where the giant puts his strength to good use helping the proprietor make sculpture out of scrap metal (in between bites, of course, because a robot's gotta eat).

Things turn more sinister when the government comes to town looking for a crashed rocket they fear could be just the beginning of a "Commie" invasion. Agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) thinks he's on a wild goose chase, until something winds up eating half of his car, and he quickly tracks the giant to Hogarth's house and moves in, determined to make the boy talk or trail him to the giant's location.

The story is deceptively lighthearted for three-quarters of the 86-minute running time, and filled with great moments between Hogarth and his mother, Hogarth and Dean, Hogarth and the giant. But it eventually becomes clear that the giant may not be aware of all his abilities, and, it seems, the government's fear of invasion wasn't entirely unjustified. The film's climax turns into an all-out action sequence, packed with chases and impressive sci-fi animation, but it's not without emotion. The trenchant moral delimma—can a gun choose not to be a gun?—is communicated with a lot of subtlety and heart, and the tearjerker ending doesn't feel the least bit manipulative (Bird may have worked with Spielberg on a number of television projects, but that doesn't mean he had to remake E.T. shot for shot).

The animation is clean and modern, a truly seamless integration of hand-drawn work and computer effects (the giant himself is a 3-D model shaded to match his cel-bound screen mates). From the gag on the old, red-ringed Warner logo in the opening credits, the style is comfortable and traditional, yet visually arresting—the giant's transformation scene offers up the best animated action scenes before or since (well, at least before the release of The Incredibles). The vocal work, despite the presence of big name talent, is unobtrusive and perfectly suited to the picture, with the standout performances coming from young Marienthal and Harry Connick Jr.

The Iron Giant looked pretty nice on DVD in 1999, but this re-release looks even better, with better detail and color contrast and less intrusive aliasing and dot crawl on outlined edges (a problem for even the best animated transfers). The 5.1 audio mix is quite lively, particularly during action sequences, though less flashy, subtler scenes are good as well, with frequent input from the surrounds and frequent panning and stereo effects across the front soundstage.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes
Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
5.1
English, Frenchyes
Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 35 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
8 Deleted Scenes
16 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Brad Bird, head of animation Tony Fucile, story department head Jeff Lynch, and storyboard artist Steven Markowski.
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Motion gallery
Extras Review: The Iron Giant came to DVD in 1999, and a special edition re-release has been a rumor ever since. Bonus materials were created over a number of years (judging from copyright dates and comments on the commentary track), and the disc was originally slated for release in the fall of 2003, but Warner pulled it for a year in order to cross promote it with the inevitable success of Bird's The Incredibles. Whether the strategy will increase sales or not, at least the disc (a disc we should have gotten in 1999, by the way) is finally here, and the bonus materials, while far from revolutionary, are worth seeing, if not worth the wait.

There are two really great features, at least. The first is a commentary track with Bird, head of animation Tony Fucile, story department head Jeff Lynch, and storyboard artist Steven Markowski. The group chat is very, uh, animated, and though it might be difficult to tell who's speaking at times, the discussion provides a lot of good information on the story development and the careful thought that went into planning every aspect of production.

Also worthy is a collection of eight deleted scenes with a total running time of just over 18 minutes, including introductions from Bird explaining why they were cut. There's a longer alternate opening with some cool footage in the eye of a hurricane that simply took too much time, some more antics between Hogarth and the giant, and a really great dream sequence that offers some hints as to the giant's origin and purpose for being (a scene Bird wanted in the film but had to cut for budgetary reasons). Most of the scenes are presented in storyboard form, only some with finished dialogue and music and some with temp tracks. The entire reel provides an interesting look at the story development process.

A number of featurettes run between two and five minutes each. The X-Factor focuses on storyboard artist Teddy Newton, known as the X-Factor because of his off-the-wall ideas. He narrates his boarded pitch for a blind date scene between Annie and Dean that's just bizarre and unpleasant—Dean races around in a hot rod, then takes her for a romantic piece of deer meat (from a drive-thru in Canada), and returns to cook it in a junkyard with a butane torch and later breaks down in tears about his career as an artist. "I showed this to Brad and that's when they took me off the story department," Newton says. Good plan, that.

Newton is more sensible in explaining his pitch for the Duck and Cover sequence in another two-minute featurette. His storyboards are presented along with the full version of the song used in the final film. It's pretty funny, if a bit morbid.

The Voice of the Giant is a brief piece on Vin Diesel, who provided, yes, the voice of Hogarth. No, wait. Owners of the previous DVD may recognize this featurette as a short excerpt from that edition's fluffy documentary, which featured a lot of kid-friendly chatter, but also some good behind-the-scenes information on the animation process. The rest of the piece (which had interviews with the rest of the vocal cast as well) has not been included, though its no great loss.

Two theatrical trailers reveal just how difficult a job the studio faced getting people to the theater to see The Iron Giant. The standard Warner clip, also included on the previous disc, reveals a bit too much of the plot and makes the film look like typical family fare (usually a good idea if you want to draw a wide audience). The unreleased "Brad Bird Trailer," which features final animation but looks a little fuzzy, like it was taken from a VHS master, is undeniably cooler, but makes the story look too intense for children. It's easy to fault Warner for the picture's failure, but Bird's movies are undeniably atypical, and thus, hard to market in two minutes or so. The same problem occurred with The Incredibles (Pixar staffers are on record saying they thought the previews made it look like the movie was about only "a fat guy in a suit"), though the Disney and Pixar pedigree took care of the box office aspect. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. Animation had built up not so goodwill (Quest for Camelot?), and the movie failed, effectively shuttering the studio in the process.

Behind the Armor offers a different way to watch the film. Hit enter when you see the nuts and bolts icon during the feature to access 13 branching featurettes focusing on various aspects of production, from the score to story development and the animation process. These pieces are all around a minute long and nothing to get too excited about (especially if you've ever watched the behind-the-scenes for any other animated movie on DVD), but they're nice to have. Try coupling the feature with the commentary to get through everything at once.

Closing out the disc is a nice animated gallery of storyboards and production art, an extensive set of cast bios (though they're only updated through 2002—the bonus material has probably been sitting ready to go on a hard drive somewhere since then—and don't, for example, mention the actors' newer films, or the fact that composer Michael Kamen has subsequently died). One positive aspect of the delay, however, is the fact that the disc is packaged in a keep case rather than a snapper, and I must say, I didn't think Warner would be able to top the original cover art, but they just may have. The feature includes a generous 35 chapters and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Scattered throughout the menus are a few easy to locate easter eggs (including one of a rough model of the giant performing ballet).

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

It's been a long time coming, and while The Iron Giant special edition isn't quite worth the wait, it's a nice disc, with entertaining (if not very enlightening) extras and interstellar audio and video quality, for a film that never received its due respect in theaters. Brad Bird has now proved himself an "incredible" box-office draw; The Iron Giant reveals why so many animation fans saw it coming.

 


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