There’s a moment in the The Iron Giant in which precocious Hogarth Hughes and his Iron Giant find a dead deer, killed by hunters just moments after the pair saw the creature alive. “It’s the monster,” cries one of the hunters as they run from the scene. This isn’t Iron Giant’s concern. Encountering mortality for the first time, the extraterrestrial machine acts as a child, unknown to the fragility of life and how easily it can be taken. In the latter half of the film, Hogarth reassures the Iron Giant over and over again, “You are not a gun.”
Marketed to young audiences under the guise of yet-another-animated-kid’s-movie, The Iron Giant, 20 years after release, has left a artful crater. Summoning commentary on identity while transgressing societal expectations, the title character stands as a symbol of liberation from the status quo; made as a weapon, but instead defending the people of Hogarth’s town through sacrifice.
Introduced as a towering figure to the utter horror of a small fishing boat navigating treacherous seas, the Iron Giant arrives to the coastal town of Rockwell looking like a monster, exacerbated by the 1950s atmosphere of superstition and deceit. While Hogarth is the only character — for the first act of the film, at least — who sees the warm heart beneath the mechanical exterior, to bystanders and government officials the likes of overtly toxic Kent Mansley, the Iron Giant fits the narrative of a weapon, a gun, and a piece of artificial intelligence possibly sent by the Russians in Cold War laden Rockwell. To those bystanders and antagonists, what they see with the naked eye is all they need to pursue their narrative of a monster. Hogarth’s lasting encouragement to his large, mechanical friend (even after the Giant reveals an arsenal of lasers under his armor) is a deep lesson for a fractured society.
The Iron Giant not only deals in ideas of mortality and sacrifice — staples of the Disney pantheon — but turns the gears further, inciting a reading on personhood and identity. Director Brad Bird’s film recognizes the commonality that there will be people who want to add limitations or lower expectations based on first perception. The small community of Rockwell isn’t wholly convinced that the rumored Iron Giant is there by accident, that the creature is maneuvering the world with as little knowledge as that of a child. But Hogarth, barely into his adolescence, becomes far more introspective once he recognizes the Iron Giant’s limitations, and he goes about instilling in the Iron Giant that he is what he deigns to be — even Superman — instead of succumbing to the expectations of others.
Embracing the “other” becomes Hogarth’s mission, and the running commentary throughout the film. Considering the 1950s setting, when fear was the norm, Hogarth instead acts to befriend and uplift the Iron Giant — “invaders from Mars,” as Hogarth contemplates upon his first investigation. But the Iron Giant turns out to be helpless, harmless, even without basic understanding of common practices. All he wants is a guide, someone to realize his potential and mold him, which Hogarth fully provides in spades. Not only embracing the Iron Giant as an equal, but connecting to the outcast, ‘the other,’ through the bonds of a world and town torn. That inciting partnership, the encourager and the uplifted, breaks a mold with its deep, societal understanding of expectations for “the other” and the realities for what they can do.
Branded as a monster, an invader, the Iron Giant begins to believe the public’s sentiments may in fact be true. But when Mansley becomes reactionary, sending a bomb straight for Rockwell, the Iron Giant embraces what Hogarth had been uplifting throughout the film. And like the Iron Giant acting as though he is Superman, here is where the film’s commentary and ultimate message takes flight.
The Iron Giant, beyond its analysis and understanding of confronting mortality, embraces the other in society and encourages them to upend societal expectations, proving bystanders and doubters wrong. In the end, the Iron Giant takes to mechanical heart exactly what Hogarth Hughes has been preaching the whole film. That the Iron Giant is “not a gun” and that he is the one who chooses who is meant to be. In manifesting this destiny, the Iron Giant makes the ultimate sacrifice for the person who made him feel more than a weapon and the community that doubted him.
In an act of heroism and defiance, the Iron Giant both proves Rockwell and Mansley wrong and wholly embraces exactly what Hogarth had been telling him all along. It’s a moment where the commentary clicks, where audiences — especially young viewers — realize that they are who they choose to be. And in having just one supporter, even if that voice is small and comes from within, they take on their own destiny.
In the 20 years since The Iron Giant hit theaters, the film has grown into a children’s film for troubled times, perfect for the evolving moment. In the spirit of embracing the “other,” Bird’s film encourages its young audiences to set a course for their own destiny. Belaying the assumptions of bystanders and those of privilege and power, ownership of personhood and identity — with all of its nuts and bolts — is the electric current that powers through this Warner Bros. vehicle. As Hogarth says of the weirdos and outcasts, “Welcome to Downtown Coolsville. Population: us.”
Julia is an entertainment writer with featured work at The Playlist, Film School Rejects, HelloGiggles, PopSugar, The Young Folks, and Screen Rant.