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A crisis in animation doomed The Iron Giant — and made it a beloved classic

The post-Disney Renaissance period allowed for unusual animated experiments that flopped, but found fans

Graphic grid featuring six different scenes from the animated movie, The Iron Giant Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: Warner Bros.

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Your favorite childhood movie might’ve been a total box-office dud. The animated movies that defined the late ‘90s and early 2000s are beloved by a generation that grew up watching them on VHS, but many of these nostalgic favorites were critical failures, box-office disappointments, or both. What went wrong along the way? And why did they gain such love after the fact? The Beloved Animated Failures series is out to dust off those old VHS tapes (or more accurately, find the movies on streaming) and examine some of these beloved failures.

On the heels of the Disney Renaissance — the studio revival that resulted in animated classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King — plenty of other companies wanted in on the significant box-office returns Disney was seeing for its animated films. Some of the studios following in Disney’s footsteps followed its formulas to a T, making movies with lavish musical sequences and coming-of-age arcs. Others experimented with genre, hoping to develop their own recognizable styles. Disney itself experimented with breaking the Renaissance formula as it headed into the new millennium.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were an era of experimentation in animation, and a lot of those experiments ended in financial failure. The Beloved Animated Failures series will look back on that era, and the films that failed to define or reward their studios, but later found devoted audiences that remember them positively today. This week, we’re taking a look at Warner Animation’s The Iron Giant, which, if anecdotal internet information can be trusted, probably made you cry. It’s a tale of Cold War paranoia wrapped up in a boy-meets-giant-robot veneer, and it became a hit Warner Animation couldn’t have anticipated.

hogarth shows the giant his comics Image: Warner Bros. Animation

What it’s about

The Iron Giant takes place in a small Maine town during the height of the Cold War. A boy named Hogarth Hughes befriends a giant metal robot he finds in the woods, but a snooping government agent is determined to destroy the robot, which he fears is a foreign threat.

A little backstory…

The Iron Giant had been in some stage of development since 1991, originally pitched by animator Richard Bazley to ex-Disney animator and studio founder Don Bluth, who passed on the project. Warner Entertainment, slowly developing its animated studio, acquired the project in the mid-’90s.

Adapting a 1968 Ted Hughes science-fiction story about a giant metal robot was an odd choice for the studio, given how fantasy-skewed the animation landscape was. At the time, movies like Beauty and the Beast and Anastasia, full of sweeping ballgowns and magic spells, dominated the landscape. But the studio thought it was a perfect opportunity for director Brad Bird, then attached to Turner Feature Animation, who was developing a science-fiction noir movie that never made it past early development.

Bird was drawn to the Iron Giant story, and he pitched a version where the basic concept boiled down to, “What if a gun had a soul, and chose not to be a gun?” (That message took on an even more poignant tone after his sister’s gun-related death in 1998.) The project was greenlit, and production officially began in early 1997.

But development quickly hit a snag. In 1998, Warner Bros. Animation’s Quest for Camelot opened in theaters — and became a critical and box-office flop. Camelot — which followed the Disney formula closely, with its sweeping musical sequences and plucky teenage girl heroine — couldn’t be more different than the science-fiction fueled Iron Giant. But the abysmal returns compared to the high budget forced Warner to reconsider its animation strategy.

Why it didn’t work

dean being very passionate about art Image: Warner Bros. Animation

The Iron Giant was a total box-office flub. Unlike with some of the era’s other misfires, there’s a clear reason: Warner didn’t give The Iron Giant an ounce of marketing. The film didn’t even have a concrete advertised release date, let alone merchandising deals and proper posters. The downfall of Quest for Camelot made Warner hesitant to back another animated film, so the studio put the majority of its marketing effort behind another critical and box-office flop-to-be: Wild Wild West.

“Basically, we were perceived as a film that would be finished and put on the shelf until there was a hole or something in the release schedule in the future,” said Bird in an interview with JoBlo.com. “And then we’d be plugged in. They wouldn’t give us a release date, they didn’t have any hopes. They just thought animation wasn’t going to really work for them.”

And the company stuck to that planned strategy. In the following years, Warner Animation drastically scaled back its feature animation department and pivoted into television for the time being. In spite of glowing critical reviews, The Iron Giant flopped at the box office, and moved quickly to home release.

Why we love it today

hogarth and the giant chilling at night Image: Warner Bros. Animation

After the positive press for The Iron Giant — and the many critical observations about the blatant lack of marketing — Warner Media sought to rectify its error, and the company mounted a much more significant campaign for the home-video release of The Iron Giant, bringing it to a wider audience. The film thrived on home release. Warner also sold the TV rights to Cartoon Network and TNT, which played the movie frequently during holidays, making it a staple of family-friendly home entertainment in the early 2000s. It’s considered a certified cult classic at this point. And with good reason: the movie is a treasure.

In part, that’s because the studio took a more hands-off approach with Iron Giant, in order to avoid replicating Camelot’s production woes. According to Bird, Camelot followed the Disney formula not only in plot, but in production.

“The Disney model is sort of a micro-managed thing, where every single decision is combed over by a huge number of people,” Bird told Animation World Magazine. “It works very well for Disney, but I don’t think it worked very well for Warner Bros. They had more management than they had artists, almost, during Quest for Camelot. It was a troubled production.”

The Iron Giant struggled with its smaller budget and production time, but Bird took advantage of the creative freedom.”We were definitely watched closely,” he said. “But when we were delivering, they were good enough to stay away and let us make the film. That was one of the most wonderful things about this film. They truly let us make it. This film was made by this animation team. It was not a committee thing at all. We made it. I don’t think any other studio can say that to the level that we can.”

The production didn’t entirely lack managerial input. In that JoBlo interview, Bird recalls some higher-ups suggesting he add a dog and “rap music.” But ultimately, management was “very cool” when he was forceful about his choices.

One big question the studio brought up, but didn’t care enough to fight for? The Iron Giant’s origins. The movie never divulges where the robot came from, which would’ve distracted the narrative from the emotional bond between Hogarth and the giant. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether the giant was an alien or a Russian invention. The only thing that matters is that he’s different from what they know, and that’s enough to make the American government feel threatened, especially during a particularly paranoid era.

mansley yelling for the kill order Image: Warner Bros. Animation

The Iron Giant paints a different picture of the 1950s than most nostalgic films of the previous decade, like Back to the Future, American Graffiti, or Grease. Instead of a rosy-eyed view, it takes a deconstructive approach, never shying away from the fear of the other that was rampant during the Cold War era. The residents of Hogarth’s hometown of Rockwell, Maine judge anything that they deem nonconformist, from the rambling fisherman who first spots the giant to Dean, a beatnik artist who makes modern art sculptures in the local junkyard. Kent Mansley, a paranoid government agent who comes to Rockwell seeking the robot, rambles about keeping America safe, but he’s never depicted as the good guy. The movie shows the dangers of his nationalistic mindset, whether it’s found in the day-to-day interactions of small-town life, or at the top of the United States military. The threat in The Iron Giant doesn’t come from the story’s fantastical, possibly even alien elements — it’s rooted in real human attitudes.

The Cold War paranoia pushes the plot along, but the reason so many people report that the movie makes them cry is because of the relationship between Hogarth and his nameless giant-robot friend. Their friendship isn’t just surface-level, it delves into the existential themes that make the movie particularly poignant. Though Hogarth is a kid, he takes the position of teacher, explaining concepts of humanity, death, and souls to the giant, who’s slowly beginning to understand himself better. Their conversations don’t just help the giant learn more about the world, they help Hogarth — and the audience watching at home — parse these difficult concepts into something explainable.

The Iron Giant speaks in limited words and phrases. His childlike approach to the world, along with Vin Diesel’s heartfelt vocal performance, makes for a particularly endearing character. The storyline of boy-meets-creature — be it dog, alien, or giant robot — isn’t new, but The Iron Giant seamlessly weaves quiet character moments, like Hogarth showing the giant his comic books, into the greater overarching themes of existentialism and pacifism.

And the film lets its mysteries stand, without explanation or any grand setup for a sequel. The movie’s villains are rooted in real American social issues, and the characters — from Hogarth’s hardworking single mom to outsider artist Dean — feel fleshed-out, not like exaggerated caricatures. Even though The Iron Giant is about a giant robot, its power comes from its quieter moments and its emotional journey.

At the end of the movie, the Iron Giant fights against his own programming, choosing to save Hogarth and his town. The giant’s capabilities for destruction are shown earlier in the movie — his attack programming is triggered by the sight of a toy gun, then on a larger scale by the Army’s weapons — but ultimately, he fights against what he was designed to do. Even though Hogarth has made him familiar with the concept of death, he’s also internalized the message that souls don’t die. When the last tear-jerking moment comes around, it’s cathartic. We never know where he came from or what he was built for, but it doesn’t matter. What does is the way the Iron Giant becomes what he chooses to be.

the iron giant flying up into the atmosphere Image: Warner Bros. Animation

The Iron Giant is on HBO Max and is available for rental or purchase on Amazon Prime.


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