Art Transforms in Brad Bird's Pop Americana Film, 'The Iron Giant'
This film takes a revisionist approach to forms of American popular culture and mythology -- the Atomic Age, comic books, sci-fi, mid-century design -- and depicts a fierce battle between orthodoxy and individual vision.
Despite the fact that he signed on late to a long-simmering studio project, Brad Bird’s first film, The Iron Giant (1999), offers a perfect distillation of his artistic vision. With its stirring classical narrative structure and its vision of imagination triumphing over conformity, the film reveals his predilection for pop revisionism and Romantic irony as seen in his subsequent films The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007).
More than hindsight supplies the reason for detecting Bird’s soul in this film, however. It remains a Brad Bird film because he so thoroughly reworked almost every aspect of this project to make it his own. He turned it into a film of vibrant pop vitality, constructed with a stirring storyline, and remarkable emotional range. It shares with The Incredibles a revisionist approach to forms of American popular culture and mythology -- the Atomic Age, comic books, science fiction, mid-century design -- and a fierce battle between orthodoxy, on one side, and the expressive power of individual vision on the other. Within its very storyline, The Iron Giant offers a nuanced reflection on the salience of popular culture. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bird’s first film employs its outsider motif to exorcize both the fears fertilized by our mind’s eye as well as the sense of wonder embedded in our imaginations. In each work, the outsider, in turn, allows the respective stories to accentuate the alienating aspects of our social orders and alerts us to our own experiences of estrangement. Moreover, Bird frames this Romantic conflict, the clash between imagination and conventionality, individualism and conformism, within an intricately structured classical narrative.
Meanwhile, Bird had been struggling to launch his first animated feature film, with a number of projects in and out of development. Bird had gained attention as a student at Cal Arts and a working animator at Disney. By the early '90s, Bird had established a strong reputation within the industry for his work on The Simpsons and his original production of Family Dog. In fact, an article in the industry trade paper Variety identified Bird as one of the strongest contenders to helm an animated feature. Warner Bros., like many other studios in the '90s, invested in an animation division to capitalize on the tremendous success of Disney’s revived animated feature division, the development of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, and the increased interest in animation generated by television shows like The Simpsons and Sponge Bob. In a subsequent meeting with executives, Bird learned of the The Iron Man project and expressed interest. Bird reengineered the entire project. “What if a gun had a soul,” Bird asked the executives, as he later summed up this first meeting. “And chose not to be a gun?” More significantly, he dropped all of the songs.
Warner Bros. placed most of its resources in 1998’s The Quest for Camelot, primed to launch its animated feature division. With so much of their managerial oversight and production personnel concentrated on that film, Bird and his team felt a degree of artistic autonomy on The Iron Giant. With a smaller budget and shorter production time than typical animated features (both tactics designed to mitigate some of the studio’s risk), Bird’s version completely restructured and transformed Hughes’ novella The Iron Man. Bird understood the motives behind Hughes’ foray into children’s literature: the suicide of Hughes’ wife Sylvia Plath and Hughes’ need to explain her death to their children. For Bird, this background represented a core theme in the work (despite the otherwise heavy-handed gestures to political allegory in the book); as the director explained: “even though there is death, life has a continuity.” Yet this theme emerges more from knowledge of the context for the novella within the Hughes family than from the book itself, which remains alternately episodic, lyrical, and allegorical. Bird wove this theme into the very narrative.
By transferring the story to 1957, Bird makes the setting and time period itself dramatic, a source of conflict and exposition. The time period explains the extreme responses to the giant -- Atomic-trigger-finger reactions, alien invasion hysteria, and cold war paranoia. In addition, the small town setting allows Bird to hide the giant for a short period long enough to establish his relationship with the boy. Setting the story during the late period of relative innocence in popular American culture allows Bird to toy with the country’s whitewashed image of itself and its ideologies, the conservatism, the reactionaries and the rebellious beatniks. Bird uses these historical figures as archetypes. As figures harboring symbolic values that extend beyond their historical context, the Beatniks represent coolness (reserving judgment) and expansiveness (their devotion to expressivity and the arts) and the governmental agent represents prejudice and rigid institutionalized conformism; the Beatnik sides with imagination and freedom; the government man proffers fear and paranoia. Hogarth and the Beatnik go with the flow, improvise, and recognize the potential in the giant for growth; the government agent sees only an object of fear while thinking only of his own career, selfishly and opportunistically targeting the giant. Thus, individualism, a core American belief, finds protection in the Beatnik; conformism, an American fear, as so often the case, comes from the agents of the American government. The agent, then, values all that should remain alien to America: confinement, selfish careerism, and elitism (he despises the rural rubes and his requisite assignment to the region). The alien, ironically, evolves to embody an American narrative: he comes to the shore, lives in the woods, makes himself into his own creature through exploration and self-determination, sacrifices himself for his community, and becomes who he “chooses to be”, as American, in turn, as Jefferson or Kerouac -- indeed, as American as that other pop culture alien, Superman.
While still suggesting a richness and complexity in all of its ingredients, the film’s Maine presents a small town life familiar to American popular culture from old movies, paintings, and commercial illustrations like those of Norman Rockwell (the namesake of the film’s fictional Maine town). We see general service stores and diners as communal gathering spots where the townspeople exchange news and gossip. Yet Maine also evokes a town with history, with deep community extending back into the American past. In this regard, it’s a town less caught up in the nerve-wracked careerism and global hysteria of more cosmopolitan centers like Washington, spewing out its Kent Mansleys, the government agent, and the more reasonable yet no less stressed General Rogard.
By contrast, Hogarth’s mother, a working widow, and Dean, the kooky artist, find harbor in the serene setting of this sea town. To underscore this sensibility, the film’s visual design evokes paintings by Rockwell, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth, classic American artists, whose work has come to signify the American past. Homer suggests a rugged, pioneering spirit that endures into an age of civilization. His images evoke an America that maintains wildness in its landscapes and an experience of the wilderness that vitally engages its modern citizens, maintaining a connection to the experiences that defined that of our founders and America itself. Yet Hopper (and even Wyeth) suggests some of the loneliness and forlornness accompanying independence and individualism, qualities that often conflict with 20th century American culture. In the film, the well-weathered faces of the boaters, the rugged waters, with waves arching in stylized crescendos, and crashing with forceful volume, echo the iconic images in Homer, as do some of the bountiful landscapes; while Hopper filters through the muted color schemes, the quiet solitude suggested by a lit interior window cracking the dark solemnity of a single house’s exterior. Rockwell figures in much of the stylized rendering of the iconic small town characters and settings: the diner, the drugstore, the main street, the farmers, and clerks. Rockwell’s skill (and his sentimentality) arose, as it does in this film, from the synecdoche of detail, the way a comic book or some junk food can capture and conjure a world of childhood.
In Bird’s conception, the film employed stylized characters, recalling some of the classic Disney films. In this way, the film adheres to a general aesthetic sensibility echoing the story’s time-period. He wanted it to more or less look like an animated film from the late '50s. To this end, Bird shot the film in widescreen format (a 50s-era development), rather than the standard 1:8:5 ratio, an especially unusual choice for an animated feature. The robot clearly personifies Bird’s retro vision, as its design resembles some of the classic robots from 50s-era science fiction films and comic books. Only its transformation in the climactic battle sequence hints at more modern representations like The Transformers (2007) or the artistry of anime. Yet even in this form, the robot recalls classic science fiction, as in its final incarnation, with its coiled extensions spiraling out of its top, it echoes the invaders from War of the Worlds (1953, 2005).
Bird and his team of artists balanced these retro design elements with a modern satirical vision of 50s-era America. This combination of modern perspective and retro design defines Bird’s work on The Incredibles, yet both films develop a deeper thematic connection in their reconciliation of a faith in the ideals represented in earlier popular cultural forms -- the earnest values of heroes, their exemplary, unwavering adherence to principles -- and a self-consciousness of their datedness. In The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, Bird’s deft handling of satire allows him to acknowledge modern variations and reexaminations of popular culture while reigning in the cynicism of works like Watchmen (2009) or The Dark Knight (2008).
The Power of Art
For Bird, caricature exploits one of the unique powers of animation; that is, the capacity to suggest character through shape, posture, and design. Liberated from strict realism, animators can distort and twist the features of characters to convey emotion, character, and psychology. Caricature also plays into the duality (or multiplicity) of audiences for The Iron Giant. Children can follow the story -- while no doubt still enjoying the sense of playful style in character's responses and actions, their animated or twisted facial expressions, the herky-jerky or elongated body parts in some actions -- at the level of character renderings, while adults, still enjoying all the above elements, can recognize the caricatured interpretations of history: the conformist government representatives, the trenchant routinized trigger-happy military types.
Bird's insistence on using hand-drawn animation set the film apart from the contemporary shift to computer animation. Bird directed the hand-drawn animation to exploit the stylization of drawing, and the manipulation of colors and form while rooting such stylization in a degree of naturalism. To take one example, the stylized rendering of Kent recalls classic Disney style. Kent's chin juts out and comes to a sharp point, as do his angular cheeks and nose, accentuating his elongated, stylized head. The geometric tubular form of his head matches his stylized figure, a box-like torso that expands or stretches out to widen his shoulders all balanced on skinny legs that move to a point downward from his waist. His eyebrows leap to sharp angles when his emotions swing to menacing aggression or paranoid fear. Springing to a facile rectitude, Kent's eyebrows can angle upward in his efforts to deceptively convey good intention. In this way, Bird exploits the power that caricature allows for in animation. The stylized figuration suggests certain archetypes in a simple, almost telegraphic fashion -- in Kent's case, the kind of stalwart, typical American male of the '50s -- while also remaining malleable, since the stylization grants some allowance to the flexibility of the form, stretching the lines, twisting the angles further.
In another instance, Hogarth jumps and twitches with the buoyancy and flexibility licensed by animation yet remains rooted in the real world (in one scene he suffers a startling blow to the head from a tree branch, prompting a bloody nose). In a scene that Bird animated himself (including all of the in-betweens), after a sip of espresso, a highly caffeinated Hogarth spews forth with ideas. His bodily contortions change dozens of times in a matter of seconds, while his face narrows, sharpens, brightens and expands with equal velocity. The animated Hogarth suggests in this scene some of the zany contortions characterizing the work of classic Looney Tunes artists -- Daffy Duck has a similar reaction to coffee -- while remaining rooted in the classic Disney style. Bird also lets the scene play out in a single shot, without resorting to close-ups or cuts, allowing Hogarth's body, and the intricate animation, to convey the mood of the scene. At a time when the trend towards computer animation pushed for greater degrees of realism and mimetic human figuration, Bird's adherence to stylized form and caricature added to the distinctive qualities of his work.
This emphasis on dynamic form in figuration links Bird to a tradition of animation from the early French animator Emile Cohl's ties to caricature to the classic Disney artists, to the stylized UPA cartoons, and indeed to Bird's former employer Matt Groening, who worked as a comic book artist before entering animation, and to artists like Norman Rockwell and illustrators for Mad magazine (these latter two references surface directly in the film). The Beat artist Dean is coded with a cool blue, whether his own hipster clothes or in his work clothes. He looks cool and slick but reacts with innocence and earnestness to genuine emotion. The animators often define Dean through a few keystrokes and lines: a sharp swath of blackness angled over his brow for his hair; a dash tightly stroked at a parallel angle to his hair represents his arched, knowing, surprised, or wry eyebrows, grounded by a strong sharp chin, etched in fine but strong lines. The simplicity and elasticity of these lines match Dean's cool persona, his spontaneous and coolly controlled actions. A simpler economy of line and figure informs the General's blocky character, only here its rectangular or square features suggest stolidity and inertia. The general's blocky, rigid look matches his by-the-book authority. Yet his stylized looks allow him to respond with real pragmatism and honesty at the proper dramatic moments later in the film.
If Bird's film -- in its retro visual design schemes, the stylized robot and characters -- reinvigorates tropes of popular commercial culture, so does its very story world and themes. Scenes, actions, and characterization within the narrative drama itself recognize and celebrate the vigor of commercial art. For example, Superman comics and pulp science-fiction films offer something lacking in Hogarth's life: vitality, imagination, and even strong and exemplary values. At school, Hogarth gets fed falsities, even dangerous ones like the duck-and-cover propaganda film. These films are not only harmful in their lies but also dull, lacking any appeal to the imagination or the humanity of the audience, instead offering only instructional logic and pedantic speeches (ironically, the animated governmental propaganda film, in its absurdly illusory reassurance regarding atomic warfare, represents a much more dangerous form of animation than anything in popular culture). Popular culture (science fiction shows and comic books, Mad magazine, superhero stories) fuels the boy's imagination, the same dimension that allows him to see the giant without fear or paranoia, and instead to see him with a sense of wonder and open-mindedness. Popular culture encourages Hogarth to trust his imagination, to see the world as a place of potential transformation, optimistic expansiveness, and vital, glorious mystery.
Hogarth's hero Superman represents another alien who chose his own destiny. Orphaned from his home planet and his parents, the hero finds himself on planet Earth with incredible powers and chooses to use them to serve humanity for no reward or remuneration, and little recognition (maintaining an alter ego). Superman's goodness belongs to an ineffable realm, an idealism almost unimaginable in this world, as beyond comprehension as his super powers. Indeed, when the boy shows a Superman comic to the giant, Hogarth connects the hero to the giant and emphasizes Superman's values. “He only uses his powers for good," Hogarth explains, “Never for evil." Those powers, of course, appeal to boys, trapped in their own small world with minimal power. A fascination with strength mirrors the boy's own weakness, particularly outsiders and weaker boys like Hogarth. Yet Superman stands out as an appealing source of fantasy because of his devotion and faith to justice, a dedication frequently mocked by ironists, too cynical to swallow his square-jawed values. These qualities made the hero an outsider as much as did his alien status. Superman sacrifices an ordinary life in his devotion to higher principles, ideals, and the greater good.
Bird added another thematic motif to Hughes' story, one that augmented the film's Romanticism: the power of art. Bird's film privileges art in a reverential manner. Just as the film clearly reveres the power of the human imagination, it holds up art as one of the particular manifestations of that imagination. Of course, Dean stands out as the most obvious representation of art. Dean is an artist, not only a beatnik. Like Hogarth, Dean sees potential in what society rejects; from junk, what society throws away, Dean makes art. More significantly, Dean teaches the giant about art; perhaps it's more accurate to say that the giant's sensitivity is drawn out through Dean, for the giant produces a work of art immediately after Dean explains the concept and process to him. Indeed, at one point in the film, art literally saves the giant. When Kent brings the army to the scrap yard, it's no coincidence that the giant is disguised as a work of art.
Art also relates to the giant's discovery of his soul and purpose, tying into his maturation and tragically triumphant final moment. The giant's humanism blossoms from the art of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman. From this perspective, art transforms. In hearing the story of Superman from Hogarth, the giant learns an ideal, a model of pure selflessness, of someone who only thinks of others. Not from real life does Hogarth learn these values (at least not within the time-frame of the story), not from school, not even from his caring, compassionate, and by all indications, wonderful mother. But from a comic book. And so from this source, Hogarth translates these humanistic values to the giant.
The Fragility and Power of the Imagination
All of the film's major themes come together in shaping the climactic sequence, fulfilling the emotional symmetry of the narrative structure. The dominant theme here is the fact of death, recalling earlier motifs -- the killing of the deer and the giant's shock; his discussion of death with Hogarth -- and building to the climactic death. But if the dominant chord in this sequence is death, Bird fills out this chord with other notes: personal responsibility, personal choice, destiny, and harmonic echoes of earlier references to popular culture. The giant's nemesis, Kent, triggers the final sequence when, in a spasm of paranoid and vengeful madness, he orders the launch of the atomic missile (after his careerist lies crumble). When the giant notices the town air-raid siren, he looks quizzically at a solemn Hogarth, who points at the missile arcing through the sky. Hogarth explains, “everyone will die", echoing their earlier conversation about death.
Bird sets up the climactic sequence by bringing some minor motifs to the surface again, building them up for their roles in the climax. In the preceding sequence, Bird echoes the image of the deer's death when the giant gently prods an injured Hogarth and mistakenly assumes that Hogarth has died, furiously leading to the giant's vengeful retaliatory attack on the army. Just before the climactic sequence, Hogarth subsequently snaps the giant out of his rage by appealing to his capacity for change and control over his identity, recalling Dean's words, “You are who you choose to be." Hogarth also conveys the pacifist message that revitalizes the robot's soul, entreating the giant to heed his own declaration that he is not a weapon. The larger irony here is that this boy, enthralled with games of violence (his toy gun, his ray-gun) represents the only individual brave and earnest enough to talk to the giant, surrounded by officials unreflectively and thoughtlessly resorting to violence.
The brief scene at the start of the climax, where Homer explains the impending devastation to the giant, displays Bird's emphasis on perspective as a tool of visual interpretation and expressive range. As the giant looks up at the missile, Bird frames the image in a low angle at the robot's feet arching upward to parallel the giant's own subjective perspective on the missile, rendered in the upper corner of the frame. Then Bird cuts to the giant's perspective as he turns to look down on the people gathered quietly in the street. Framed from behind the giant's head as he slowly scans the citizens, the image follows the giant's scanning gaze. These short successive shots lead to a growing understanding about the giant's actions, as in the next shot Bird frames the robot from Hogarth's perspective as he thoughtfully approaches his giant friend, now returning his gaze to the missile in the sky.
Bird returns to a standard medium shot for this scene of dialogue, with only the giant's hand in the frame as he crouches to talk to his friend. Again, the reverse symmetry of the giant's dialogue, “You stay, I go" underscores the meaning of the exchange as it articulates the giant's maturity and the understanding they now share and will shortly lose. “No following." The boy frowns, hanging his head low, a resignation that shows that he understands, however grief ridden, the rightness of the giant's plan. The giant lifts Hogarth's chin up, a sentimental gesture, but a delicate visualization of this paradoxical relationship of a powerful machine and a young boy. The tender finger gently lifting the boy's head embodies the changes in their relationship as the giant now assumes the mature role, assuring the boy both of the responsibility of his coming actions and of the boy's own capacity and necessity to endure. When the giant delivers the final symmetrical and devastating line to this exchange, “No following," Bird cuts to Hogarth's perspective, as the giant repeats the wagging finger from the earlier scene.
The humor -- in the true humanist meaning of the term as it describes an empathetic understanding -- transcends the irony of the literary repetition. Their relationship has evolved, with the giant now in the role of guidance and responsibility, a caretaker. By repeating Hogarth's earlier line, the giant humorously acknowledges his awareness of the role reversal and, at the same time, signals, like a knowing wink, his appreciation of Hogarth's friendship. The line is an homage to Hogarth and an evolving motif. They have reached a genuine stage in a friendship. Where the giant more or less played along with Hogarth's desires and turned to Hogarth for instruction, care, and understanding, the giant can now act as Hogarth's equal, a reciprocal love and relationship of the most profound order. Both know that this stage will only last for a moment.
With some graceful moving shots following the missile and the giant in pursuit, Bird's narrative reaches its own apotheosis, layering more recurring notes into its concluding chords. As the giant approaches the missile, and his inevitable end in noble sacrifice, Hogarth's statement echoes through his head on the soundtrack, affirming his chosen path: “You are who you choose to be." Then the giant answers Hogarth's avowal as he utters one line: “Superman," an action of simplicity and complexity, both an honoring of Hogarth, who taught him about the hero, and a heroic affirmation of the giant's own humanity, his apotheosis of choosing his own destiny. In making this sacrifice, in his act of death, the giant triumphs: he destroys this weapon, launched by paranoia and aggression, and also chooses not to be a weapon himself. Like Superman, he uses his power for goodness, and for sacrifice, an ultimate act of pure selflessness. The line is delivered with such quiet certainty that it overwhelms the impending explosion; it renders the scene exactly for what it is dramatically -- not a mere sensational explosion, but an emotional development of character.
For Hogarth the impact remains equally simple and complex. He loses his friend, companion and playmate, and what earlier had been a toy extraordinarily beyond any boy's imagination. Yet Hogarth's loss owes something to the very depth and rich humanity he nurtured within the robot, a maturation experienced because, by, and with Hogarth. Hogarth conveyed to the giant the lost art of noble sacrifice through his reading of Superman. The giant's decision to sacrifice his life by destroying the missile completes the film's motifs of innocence (“this can't last forever," Dean tells Hogarth in an earlier idyllic scene), experience (the robot's growth and knowledge of the world), and loss -- a paradise lost. Looking up into the sky, the boy is saved, rescued by this wonderful hero that, days earlier, only lived in his dreams, the comics, television, and science fiction movies. The boy's mother, his friends, and his town will all go on because the giant becomes a true hero. But the giant is lost forever, returned to a realm of imagination through the boy's memory.
In this climax, the film's themes coalesce in the action, which in turn fulfills the moral chronicle of the film's primary relationship, one that on its own justifies the narrative. The boy's story takes precedent here through the weight of his loss. Yet it bears witness to the tragedy of the society and the era: the kneejerk suspicion and aggression towards outsiders, the failure of their imagination, the militant reaction.The boy's tragedy, in turn, acts as an intimate witness to the larger tragedy. Both dimensions resonate with Romanticism's concerns for the fragility and power of the imagination, its faith in experience and idealism, and the threat of confining conformism in larger social and institutional regimes. At the same time, in his loss and sacrifice, the giant confirms Hogarth's faith in the imagination, and justifies Hogarth's lack of trust or interest in official institutions: the intellectual tedium of school, the tyranny of governmental officials and the military, a set of themes that dominate great commercial popular art, from Mad magazine, to the Beatles, to Stanley Kubrick's films, to Looney Tunes, and more. Fourteen years after its release, Brad Bird's The Iron Giant has already taken its place within these canonical works of pop culture, earning its status as a classic.
The scenes from the music video, "A Friend Is a Friend", indicate Townsend's strict fidelity to the novella. It also underscores how Townsend and Bird excavated similar buried themes in the narrative, as the song builds itself around the motif of compassion overcoming an initial fear of a strange creature.
Press book, p. 4, Iron Giant files, Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library.
My discussion of caricature owes much to the brilliant “Caricature" chapter in High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (MoMA, NY, Abrams. 1990)