The Iron Giant: Special Edition Review

In an age when even the mighty Disney is abandoning traditional hand-drawn animation, 2D is almost completely confined to the realms of television. Because of this, the appearance of a new theatrical hand-animated film feels like a special event, whether the results are any good or not. The 1999 feature The Iron Giant holds a special place in the heart of many animation aficionados, yet its box office takings were meagre, with distributor Warner Brothers seemingly reluctant to market it at all.

Directed by Brad Bird, who was a director and consultant on The Simpsons back in its early years, The Iron Giant is based on the book The Iron Man by poet Ted Hughes. Although the film retains the same concept as the book, the literary source is used more for inspiration than as a rigid basis for the plot. The film tells the story of Hogarth, a lonely young boy whose father has recently died. He lives with his mother Annie in a 1950s American town named Rockwell, where paranoia of Communism and alien invaders is rife. One night, an unidentified flying object lands on earth. Hogarth discovers this to be a 50-foot giant made of metal. Gradually the two become friends, but beneath the Giant's childlike innocence and playfulness lurks a darker past...

The parallels with ET: The Extra-Terrestrial are obvious. Hogarth more than resembles Elliot, and his relationship with the Giant mirrors Elliot's relationship with ET. There is even a scene where Hogarth shows the giant various objects and teaches him their names, which is very similar to a scene in ET. It would not be fair to claim that The Iron Giant is a rip-off -- far from it -- but it is clearly (whether consciously or not) inspired by Spielberg's film.


Ultimately, The Iron Giant works for the same reason that ET did: it has heart and soul, something that has been missing in a lot of animated films recently. The people who worked on this film cared about it and believed in it, and the results show on screen. It has a childlike feeling of wonderment throughout it, presenting the world in an innocent manner. The American paranoia prevalent in the 1950s is represented well here, with nods to things Sputnik and "the Bomb". A lot of this would probably go over the heads of most children, proving that this is a movie to be enjoyed by adults as much as kids.

Art-wise, The Iron Giant is a real treat. While the character design might seem a little bland, it fits with the innocent 50s atmosphere, and the backgrounds and effect animation are exquisite. Most of the animation is hand-drawn, and although the Giant himself is actually computer-animated, be is rendered in such a way that he actually looks like he could have been drawn by hand (the designers of the Giant created special software that could "feather" the edges slightly to make them look like they were drawn with a pencil), and the use of 3D is never gratuitous, as it has been in recent hybrid 2D/3D features like Disney's Treasure Planet or Dreamworks' Sinbad.

The score, composed and conducted by the legendary Michael Kamen, is used to great effect, and thankfully there are no characters bursting into spontaneous song. There are a couple of licensed tunes, but they are used in the background in a relatively inobtrusive way. One segment well worth looking out for is a short "what to do if an atomic bomb explodes" cartoon shown to Hogarth and his classmates, which does a superb job of mimicking the style of the "educational" newsreels of the 50s, and has a hilarious jingle to go with it.

Ultimately, The Iron Giant is the touching story of a lonely boy who befriends a giant robot. It is told with such care and heart that even the most cynical of movie-goers would have a hard time not liking it. It did badly at the box office, but don't let its poor earnings fool you. It is a true gem and one that I can honestly say everyone should see.




Picture

The Iron Giant's transfer is anamorphic, presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

This seems to be more or less the same transfer that was used for the previous, bare-bones releases of the film. Unlike many animated movies today, it is sourced from a print, avoiding the sterile look that is all too prevalent in modern animation. The image is nicely detailed, and sufficiently sharp. There is some moderate edge enhancement which leads in turn to minor colour bleeding, but it is nothing serious.

There are no visible problems with filtering, moiré, or compression artifacts of any kind.

All in all, this is a solid transfer. People who have owned the previous release will know what to expect.




Sound

Four audio mix are provided, the relevant one of course being its original English Dolby Digital 5.1 track.

Although the multi-channel effects and use of bass are extremely impressive, the dialogue sounds somewhat muffled. This was a problem in the bare-bones release as well, and because it affects all the voices but not the music and sound effects, I expect that it is an issue with the original dialogue recording rather than the encoding. The multi-channel explosions in the final twenty minutes of the film make for great demo material, but the murky dialogue prevents this mix from getting top marks.




Menu

The menus are simply designed, themed like an old movie projector. There is no menu animation of any kind, which is fine because their look is streamlined and very eye-pleasing, and I feel that animation would have detracted from that. Some music (score from the film designed to sound like an old gramaphone recording) and sound effects play in the background.




Packaging

The front cover design is a striking image of the Giant (painted by the film's production designer, Mark Whiting, according to the DVD's cast and crew biographies). The back cover is mostly just text, but its design is appealing if a little simplistic. Unfortunately this is a snapper release. Clearly Warner's decision to abandon the wretched cardboard packaging had not been made when release was being manufactured.




Extras

The previous release of The Iron Giant included very little in the way of special features: only a short made-for-TV featurette, a trailer and a brief music video. With the supplements for this special edition release supposedly ready to go since 1999, the fans that have been anxiously awaiting it have extremely high expectations.

Commentary - Director Brad Bird is joined by Jeffrey Lynch (head of the story department), Steve Markowski (supervising animator for the Giant) and Tony Fucile (head of animation). Those of you who have heard Bird's (sadly infrequent) commentaries on the Simpsons DVDs will know that he is a very entertaining speaker, and is able to convey a great deal of information in an interesting manner. He certainly does the lion's share of talking on this track, with the others often being prompted by him to provide information. There are a couple of "let's stop talking and watch this scene" moments (literally), but all in all there aren't too many silent gaps. They even manage to get in one or two jabs at Disney.

Deleted scenes - Eight deleted scenes are provided, most of them in storyboard form, but a couple of them have some pencil animation, and even a couple of shots in colour. All the deleted scenes are introduced by Brad Bird, except for "The Giant's Dream", which is introduced by Bird, Lynch and story artist Kevin O'Brien. It is interesting that, on more than a couple of occasions, Bird points out that some scenes were cut due to budgetary constraints, and that in his "ideal version" of the film they would be included. The film doesn't suffer hugely from their absence, but it would have been nice if some of them could have been included. This is especially true of "The Giant's Dream", which is imaginative and tonally very different from the rest of the movie.

Teddy Newton "The X-Factor" - Nicknamed "the X-Factor" due to his wild, uninhibited imagination, Teddy Newton was originally to storyboard a few scenes in the film, but was removed as soon as he turned in his first scene. It is presented here in storyboard form with him providing voice-overs and descriptions, and it's easy to see why he was taken off the storyboard team. While the scene itself (with Annie going on a blind date with Dean) is hilarious, it doesn't fit the tone of the film at all, being a lot closer to something like Ren & Stimpy in style.

Duck and Cover sequence - The "Duck and Cover" educational film reel Hogarth watches at school was designed by Teddy Newton, and was originally to be something much longer. It is presented here in its original, lengthier storyboard form.

The voice of the Giant - I haven't mentioned the vocal performances for The Iron Giant yet in this review, mainly because I believe that in animation the voice acting is not as important as some people seem to think. Many critics have a habit of directly equating the voice-over artists to the actors of live action films, when in reality nothing could be further than the truth. The voice-over artist only provides a voice, but it is the animator who truly brings the character to life. With that in mind, this short featurette feels a little out of place given the obviously artist-centric nature of the other supplements. A large amount of the material here is in fact an extract from the made-for-TV featurette that accompanied the original DVD release of The Iron Giant, making this probably the least worthwhile extra.

Behind the armor - This is a series of thirteen featurettes discussing various aspects of production, such as characters, music, animation and storyboards. The packaging describes these mini-documentaries as "branching", but in reality they just play one after the other. They are a little short, but they do provide a wealth of information about the thinking behind the film. Interviewees include Bird, composer Michael Kamen, head of animation Tony Fucile, story head Jeffrey Lynch, producers Allison Abbate and Des McAnuff, dialogue writer Tim McCanlies, Iron Giant designer Joe Johnston, production designer Mark Whiting, animator James Van Der Keyl, and others.

Motion gallery - Running at slightly over four minutes, this is a compilation of design art, backgrounds, storyboards, rough and finished animation, illustrating various moments from the film. It's good stuff, but far too short. It would have been nice to have viewed the drawings in a still gallery, like what Disney has done with its various 2-disc special edition releases.

Theatrical trailer - This is the same trailer that appeared on the previous releases, presented in impressive anamorphic 2.35:1 with Dolby Surround 2.0 audio.

Although the extras on offer are satisfying, I don't really feel that they constitute a true special edition. Some of the features, especially the mini-documentary segments, feel a bit disjointed, as if they were originally planned to be part of something much grander. I also feel that the motion gallery, while nice, is disappointingly short. It would have been great to see more rough animation on display, for example higher quality versions of some of the material that is available on various web sites. Technically, though, we are lucky to have this release at all, so perhaps we should be thankful for what we've got.




Conclusion

The Iron Giant is a modern classic, not just when compared to other animated films but in terms of the entire movie industry. This DVD presentation is of a very high standard, and although the extras available are perhaps not quite worthy of the "special edition" tag, they are more than enough to satisfy, and as the DVD is reasonably priced, there is little room for complaint. With the American version delayed until next year -- no doubt so it can be released to coincide with Bird's next feature, Pixar's The Incredibles -- this Korean release should be all the more appealing. It is also worth pointing out that, although this release is Korean, the disc is dual-encoded for regions 2 and 3, making this option open even to UK customers without a multi-region DVD player.

Film
10 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

9

out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 15:41:47

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