I Am Not A Gun: The Iron Giant’s Legacy as a Modern Classic of Animation

The Iron Giant
Signature Edition
is available
this week on blu-ray.

“It’s bad to kill. Guns kill. And you don’t have to be a gun. You are what you choose to be.”

The term “modern classic” gets bandied about almost too regularly in certain circles to truly be taken seriously, but when one is faced with sheer masterwork – and the film in question is a directorial debut – one seriously considers it the appropriate moniker. The Iron Giant, an oft-overlooked but positively resplendent film directed by Brad Bird for Warner Brothers in 1999, is a genuine modern classic of animation, a feat well worth celebrating upon its Blu-Ray release.

Loosely based around the 1968 Ted Hughes novel of the same name, The Iron Giant posits some important questions. What would happen if weapons were endowed with sentience? How would we ensure they would do as they were programmed, if they developed self-awareness? If, indeed, a gigantic metal man fell from space and was discovered to be an easily-triggered war machine, could it truly become a hero, if it were taught that it could be whatever it chose?

Animated primarily traditionally on a rather small budget, The Iron Giant speaks to such huge themes and questions, all through the story of a young boy named Hogarth who discovers an enormous, metal-devouring robot from outer space roaming the outskirts of his Maine hometown during the autumn of 1957 and takes the automaton under his wing. The Iron Giant’s presence draws the interest of the U.S. Government and military, and Hogarth must try to help his unusual friend stay out of harm’s way, all while teaching it about the nature of death, and what it means to be a hero – even if it seems the Giant itself was built to be a defensive weapon.

Animated movies with “a boy and his X” at their heart can be overly sentimental, but the relationship between Hogarth and the Iron Giant is the true masterpiece at the center of this film. Bird avoids attaching too much schmaltz to the interactions between characters, but allows them to organically function in a way that refuses to talk down to even the smallest viewer. The love the boy develops for the gigantic machine is palpable, but it doesn’t make the Giant into more than it is; it is only through a very human sacrifice that the mechanical man can be redeemed.  Even as it seems the robot’s programmed instincts will destroy any chance it has of shedding its identity as a firearm…it remembers its desire to be like Superman, and makes its choice.

signature edition
Bro. You're massive. Where do you work out?

With sensitivity and maturity, Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant is a lovingly animated powerhouse of anti-gun rhetoric, quietly masquerading as a tale of Cold War paranoia and the fantastical friendship between a boy and an advanced, if childlike, robot. Maintaining an intelligence and nobility that, to this day, marks it as an important film for children as well as for adults, the fable’s tangible gentility and the visceral gut-punch of its climax are more than enough to warrant its status as a modern-day classic. Add to these the lush, Rockwell-esque background animation, superb voice-over acting (particularly by Vin Diesel, whose work as the Giant is almost heartbreaking during certain lines), and swirling Michael Kamen score – and how could there be any question?

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Often overshadowed by animated films with perhaps less heavy-handed morals, The Iron Giant stands today as a genuinely incredible addition to the genre, both visually and thematically. If it’s possible for a creature who was built with the express purpose of killing can learn the value of life and desire to save it, the film gives us hope that we, too, can decide to alter our own perceived destinies.

We can also choose to be Superman. 

-Dana Culling