Iron Giant at 20

The Iron Giant just turned twenty” is a weird sentence to write, considering that the film feels more important now than it did two decades ago. That’s not to say it didn’t matter then. Far from it, in fact. Though the animated film didn’t see much success in the box office, it was both a critical success and a fan favorite whose cult following is completely earned.  

Back in 1999, the film’s punch was much more personal. It didn’t see widespread success, but where it hit, it hit hard. The overly imaginative loner kids with single parents saw themselves in young Hogarth as they watched him gradually find a new friend. The Iron Giant didn’t just hit home for the younger audience, either. Parents (and the very adult critics) all found something to love, whether it be out of attachment to Annie, Dean, or even young Hogarth’s stories, or the overall charm of the film. No matter which human you found yourself attached or relating to, there’s one very obvious common denominator in everyone’s love for the film: The Iron Giant himself.

We all cried with Groot, but Vin Diesel’s been making folks well-up way before we had to watch our favorite tree die (twice). If the Giant’s sacrifice didn’t make you break down into a fit of extremely unattractive sobs, then I don’t even know what to say to you. What I do know is that a ten-year-old me was inconsolable but wasn’t quite old enough to nail why The Iron Giant’s ending mattered so much. 

Now the kids who grew up with the movie are all old enough to realize that it’s trying to show that hate and fear aren’t born, they’re taught; and that hope can never truly be killed. Timeless messages such as those are strong contributors to the film’s following sticking around, but don’t fully nail why it holds a very specific level of importance in today’s climate. 

The antagonist of the movie, government agent Kent Mansley, is decades of paranoia all wrapped into one character. Agent Mansley hates the Giant. Not because the Giant’s done anything, of course. He’s automatically bad because he’s seen as The Other. “You think this metal man is fun, but who built it? The Russians? The Chinese? The Martians? Canadians? I don’t care! All I know is we didn’t build it, and that’s reason enough to assume the worst and blow it to kingdom come,” he demands at one point. 

“All I know is we didn’t build it, and that’s reason enough to assume the worst.” Damn… that xenophobic diatribe sounds awful familiar, right? Make no mistake, there’s no assumption on my part that the flagrant racism and xenophobia running rampant across the globe right now is new. But it sure has been handed a megaphone as of late. Every day there’s a new horror, and five more Mansleys pop up. The smallest of wins often run in conjunction with colossal losses. The world goes on whether we want it to or not, and every day it gets harder and harder to get up and keep fighting, which takes us to the final quote we’re going to pull from the movie.

“You are who you choose to be.”  

The Iron Giant is capable of great destruction. He could destroy nearly anything if he had the inclination. Instead, he chooses to be a hero. This narrative could be compared to plenty of things, including the notion of going high when others go low, or the choice of inaction vs standing up. No one’s going to bore you by getting preachy about what context you should take from The Iron Giant. What I will say is that it might be worth a revisit for its twentieth anniversary if you’re in need of a little hope. It feels more relevant now than ever. 

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