I was a little surprised last year when Brad Bird’s live action Disney sci-fi epic Tomorrowland failed to find an audience, but I probably shouldn’t have been. For some reason, atomic age sci-fi throwbacks have an iffy history among moviegoing audiences, which has played to the detriment of films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and The Rocketeer, despite (in my mind) the genre’s easy likability. Given this track record, I guess what should more surprising than Tomorrowland’s lackluster response would be Brad Bird’s past success with making an actually popular atomic age throwback in the late 90s. The problem is that success was entirely critical & the movie financially flopped.
Brad Bird’s directorial debut, The Iron Giant, has earned a glowing reputation in the years since its release, but it bombed hard in the theaters, losing more than half of its production budget. I don’t know what it is about atomic age sci-fi that lends itself to slow-building goodwill instead of immediate success. Perhaps the era’s clean-cut suburban earnestness suggests a hokey aesthetic people associate with microwave popcorn on the couch VHS rentals instead of large group family outings to theater. Whatever the cause, Bird’s two stabs at the genre have both proven to be gambled-and-lost endeavors financially for major studios who’ve backed him. The difference between them is that The Iron Giant has had a consistently strong critical reception since its release, one that’s only grown as the children who did happen to catch it in the VHS rental era of their lifespan have grown up remembering it fondly. No word yet on if Tomorrowland will enjoy a similar kind of longevity in the public imagination, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The Iron Giant is an animated tearjerker about two out-of-place misfits who form an all-too brief friendship in the face of a world hellbent on tearing them down. One friend is a loner nerd middle school student who fills his days with adopting strange pets & his nights with watching 50s sci-fi schlock on television broadcasts. The other is a seamless combination of those two interests: a physically damaged space alien robot with the mind of a child. The unlikely pair form a sort of dual coming of age story while hanging out in a beatnik’s junkyard & evading persistent inquiries from the NSA. The human boy learns to take on responsibility & to adopt a “Who cares what those creeps think?” attitude towards his bullies. The gigantic robot learns to hate the very thing he’s designed to be (war & weaponry) & to exercise free will in a way that allows him to overcome his nature. Their greatest enemy is a warmongering G-Man just drooling to see the alien “invader” destroyed & their story plays out against a Cold War suburbia backdrop that contrasts the innocence of carefree youth with details like a duck-and-cover nuclear bomb scare film titled ATOMIC HOLOCAUST. Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is how it provides a satisfying arc for both the boy and the robot, as well as an emotionally taxing climax, all while feeling like a relaxed hangout film about two buds being buds.
There’s a lot of interesting technical aspects to The Iron Giant that suggest Brad Bird came out of the gate as a strong directorial talent. First of all, the film knows the source material it’s evoking quite well, cobbling together plots from other sci-fi fare like Superman comics, giant robot stories, and alien invasion features into a single, The Day the Earth Stood Still-style parable that makes great use of its various influences. The film also looks like a feature-length adaptation of a toy raygun, perhaps the most accurate evocation of the era’s style since Joe Dante’s Matinee. I’m not a huge fan of CG animation, but the way The Iron Giant‘s computer graphics mix with its hand drawn style actually serves the mechanical nature of its subject matter quite well. Even the sound design is on point, pulling great period setting authenticity from The Coasters song “Searching” & utilizing a rusted metal vocal performance from a Groot-mode Vin Diesel as the titular robot without overworking the gimmick. Bird’s first feature is an amazingly balanced work that impresses both in its narrative & technical proficiency as well as its ability to inspire a genuine emotional response. It’s downright bizarre that it didn’t immediately strike gold at the box office, but it’s also no wonder that it eventually found an enthusiastic audience once it hit home release.
Having only seen The Iron Giant & Tomorrowland once a piece, I can confirm that the former is the better work & totally deserving of its reputation as such. I’d like to think that there’s enough room in the world’s heart for both atomic age children’s epics to earn long-term success, though, and I hope Tomorrowland eventually joins The Iron Giant’s ranks as an initially-overlooked crowd favorite. If nothing else I’d just like to see its esteem grow so Brad Bird could maybe, just maybe, find funding for a third product within the genre, despite its reputation as box office poison. He’s damn good at making these things & I honestly believe his two entries in the genre are his best, most personally distinct work to date (no offense to the diehard Pixar crowd who’d likely stand up for The Incredibles or Ratatouille in that regard). We don’t have many directors working who still understand the appeal of the genre as Brad Bird & it’d be a shame to let something as pedestrian as money stop him from making more.