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Mr. Beaks Attends The 10th Anniversary Celebration Of THE IRON GIANT! Calls For A Theatrical Re-Release!

"What if a gun had a soul and didn't want to be a gun?"

Stirring in its simplicity, bold in its depiction of humanity's capacity for violence, ruthless in its ability to make grown men cry, THE IRON GIANT endures because, once upon a time, its visionary director Brad Bird refused to treat his audience like imbeciles. He had no interest in mindlessly emulating the popular movie-musical formula of Katzenberg-era Disney or incorporating a hip-hop soundtrack to broaden the film's demographic appeal; he just wanted to tell a timeless story about a kid who befriends a giant, non-singing, potentially-lethal robot from another planet. This, unbelievably, was a revolutionary idea back in the 1990s. And while Warner Bros. Feature Animation was eager to bring a talented filmmaker like Bird into the fold, they were baffled by (if not outright hostile to) the director's stubborn insistence on jettisoning the musical elements, setting the film in 1957 (at the height of Sputnik paranoia), and stranding viewers with a protagonist named Hogarth, the only child of a single mother. "How depressing," thought the studio! "Would it kill Bird to give young Hogarth a kid sister or a talking dog to liven things up a little? Could he possibly bring the film into the present day? And, seriously, he's just kidding about going the non-musical route, right? 'Cuz no one makes cartoons without musical numbers anymore. It just isn't done. Perhaps he'd change his mind if he heard the demos for those fabulous Carole Bayer Sager/David Foster tunes from QUEST FOR CAMELOT!" Though Bird was pressured to make such changes throughout development, he never capitulated to the studio's demands. According to the director at last Friday's ASIFA-sponsored 10th Anniversary celebration for THE IRON GIANT (held at the Stephen J. Ross Theatre on the Warner Bros. lot), this earned him a reputation for being "difficult" - which, evidently, is studio-speak for "having an opinion". Whether or not Bird was unduly combative, it turns out he had a right to be recalcitrant: though the film bombed theatrically (for reasons that aren't as clear-cut as you might think), it was still a massive hit with critics and championed by upstart websites like AICN*; within a year of its release, the picture was already being referred to as a new family classic by the thousands of discriminating individuals who took a chance on it. For those of us who were enchanted by THE IRON GIANT from day one, it's been incredibly gratifying to see Bird go on to make two of the best animated films of the last decade in THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE. But it's still mildly annoying to know that Bird's debut feature was never fully appreciated in the cinema as the 'scope masterpiece that it so clearly is. It's one thing to watch THE IRON GIANT at home on DVD, but quite another to get lost in its anamorphic splendor in a darkened theater. This is where the film comes alive. The rich autumnal colors of the picture's Maine setting (inspired by the regionalistic art of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood) are much more lush when projected, while the lumbering lug-ishness of the titular character is even more charming when he's bumbling about on a thirty-foot-tall movie screen. THE IRON GIANT may be a small film in terms of character and narrative, but it actually has immense visual scale. Just look at the above image of the Giant soaring into the heavens to save Hogarth and the townspeople from nuclear annihilation. Wouldn't you love to see that on the big screen? Of course you would. So here's my pitch to Warner Bros.: Obviously, you're going to release THE IRON GIANT on Blu-ray at some point - and I'm sure it's going to be a snazzy, visually-immaculate, extras-packed upgrade of the five-year-old "Special Edition" DVD. I can't wait to own it and share it with my imaginary children. But you know what would be really wonderful - and, I think, a lovely gesture to a film you couldn't quite figure out the first time around? A theatrical re-release. I can only go on anecdotal evidence here, but, as far as I know, THE IRON GIANT is more beloved by thirtysomething geeks like me than the audience for which it was largely intended: i.e. children. And while I made damn sure my nephew got the DVD several years ago (well before he was ready for it), the film just can't compete with the aggressively-marketed likes of ICE AGE, CARS and STAR WARS. These are the films kids want on a loop while they're building Lego spaceships or smashing Transformers into each other with Bay-like zeal. A less visually frantic movie like THE IRON GIANT - for which there are no tie-in toys currently available - just doesn't stand a chance. But if you plop these kids down in a theater for ninety minutes, they'll be laughing and cheering and crying and - here's the part you'll like, WB - clamoring for their own Iron Giant. It's an experience they'll cherish forever - one they'll want to share with their own kids thirty years down the line. Suddenly, this is no longer an animated film parents love more than their children; it's a family classic for the ages ala THE WIZARD OF OZ or PINOCCHIO. I know there's precious little incentive to follow through on this: your feature animation division has been shuttered for years, and you've probably barely recouped on THE IRON GIANT's $48 million production budget as a catalogue title (if you've recouped at all). Also, you've traditionally got the most packed release schedule of any studio in town. Why take a risk redistributing a ten-year-old, hand-drawn cult item when you've got twenty brand new movies to market? Because THE IRON GIANT should be one of your studio's crown jewels. It's as close to perfect as a film can be. In many ways, I think it's more engaging for younger viewers than E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (which Bird's film is clearly patterned after). I mean, E.T.'s neat and all, but can he chow down on scrap metal like it's candy or hurl a junky Oldsmobile into the next county? I don't think so. And does E.T. ever compel Elliot to explain death and the possibility of an afterlife in a manner as eloquent as this:
Hogarth: I know you feel bad about the deer, but it's not your fault. Things die. That's part of life. It's bad to kill, but it's not bad to die. Iron Giant: You die? Hogarth: Well, yes, someday. Iron Giant: I die? Hogarth: I don't know. You're made of metal, but you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul. And souls don't die. Iron Giant: Soul? Hogarth: Mom says it's something inside of all good things, and that it goes on forever and ever. Iron Giant: Souls don't die.
*Sniffle*. Even if you're an atheist, is that such a horrible notion to impart to children? Replace Bibles and Torahs and Qur'ans with this simple exchange, and the world would be a much better place. There are millions of moviegoers out there who don't realize how special THE IRON GIANT is. For most, it's just another babysitter on the DVD shelf. Hell, for many critics, it's just that little movie that got Brad Bird gainful employment up in Emeryville, CA. But here's the thing: I think it's a better overall film than THE INCREDIBLES or RATATOUILLE. Frankly, it's one of the few modern animated films worthy of Disney's golden age. And you know how Disney mines those classics with rereleases and merchandising and insultingly inferior direct-to-DVD sequels? You should be doing that with THE IRON GIANT (though feel free to skip the insultingly inferior direct-to-DVD sequels). Basically, you've got a WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY on your hands, but you're treating it like... well, QUEST FOR CAMELOT. Our Iron Giant deserves better. He's Superman. Here endeth the harangue.

While I had hoped there was going to be a screening to go along with the big 10th Anniversary celebration last Friday, Bird and his erstwhile creative team more than held the audience's attention with a detailed, respectfully dishy Q&A that genuinely enhanced my knowledge of the film's development, production and botched release. Here are the highlights from the nearly two-hour chat. Joining Bird were Scott F. Johnston (artistic coordinator), Alan Bodner (art director), Tad A. Gielow (computer graphics), Brian Gardner (technical director), Jeff Lynch (story department head), and Eddie Rosas (animator):

    *Bird became involved with THE IRON GIANT after an animated sci-fi project he was developing with Turner Entertainment, called RAY GUNN, died. You can get a taste for what we missed out on here.
    *Bird recounting a typical conversation with Ted Turner: "You're the hot shit guy, right? Am I supposed to kiss your ass or something? Hold on! I gotta talk to Michael Milken!"
    *THE IRON GIANT, derived from the novel by Ted Hughes, was initially intended to be a big-screen rendition of Pete Townsend's concept LP, THE IRON MAN, which The Who guitarist had developed with Des McAnuff (who directed the stage musical of TOMMY - and the not-as-bad-as-its-reputation THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY & BULLWINKLE). Bird had to personally inform Townsend that he would not be using his material for his version of the film. This was apparently very difficult. But Bird says Townsend was very gracious in walking away from the project. Many years later, Townsend sent the director a letter of congratulations after the opening of THE INCREDIBLES.
    *The studio was unrelenting in its attempts to get Bird to contemporize the setting. Finally, he blew up at the execs, stating (with no shortage of profanity) that the Giant couldn't hide anywhere given today's satellite technology. This was the end of that discussion.
    *Bird on the pitfalls of working within the studio system: "If you show you care, they have you." Even after WB had agreed to Bird's take on the material, they continued to lobby his agent to get him to make changes. But Bird had signed a six-month-or-out contract to develop the film, which gave him a great deal of leeway to tailor the film to his sensibilities. Finally, at what Bird remembers as "six months and one day", Warner Bros. greenlit THE IRON GIANT. Fortunately for their production budget (which Bird places at $48 million), they got the go-ahead before QUEST FOR CAMELOT bombed.
    *We were shown the work-reel version of Hogarth's initial search for the Giant in the forest. It was mostly temp-scored to Jerry Goldsmith's "Hyper Sleep" cue from ALIEN. The studio didn't like this sequence. They found it boring.
    *Conceived, but never animated (due to expense): a protracted, chaotic battle between the military and the Iron Giant. There was a scene where the Giant dives into the ocean and dodges a torpedo fired from a submarine - which then hits the face of a cliff, bringing an avalanche of rocks down on the Giant and Hogarth. When the Giant submerges with Hogarth, he realizes the boy cannot breathe underwater, so he frantically retrieves an air bubble from the surface to save his friend's life.
    *Animated, but cut from the film: a bit of comedic business involving "Tutti Frutti". Harry Connick Jr.'s beatnik character, Dean, gives Hogarth a .45 of Little Richard's original recording of the song. Later in the film, Kent Mansley tries to win the young boy over by giving him a copy of Pat Boone's version. In trying to sell a skeptical Hogarth on Boone's travestying of the rock-and-roll classic, Kent exclaims, "It's got that jungle rhythm, but you can understand the words!" Bird fought to keep the scene in the film, but ultimately conceded that it just didn't fit.
    *Chloroforming Hogarth was fine with the studio. Chloroforming and tying him up? Not okay.
    *Along with the Regionalist artwork of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, they also patterned the nostalgic look of the film after THE BLACK STALLION and TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM (which were shot by, respectively, Caleb Deschanel and Vittorio Storaro).
    *Bird was adamant about seamlessly incorporating the CG elements into the hand-drawn look of the film. He wanted to stay away from any hint of CG perfection.
    *The Giant had eyebrows and a conveyer-belt tongue at one point.
    *The production gag reel includes an outtake of the Iron Giant as a cigarette-smoking private detective in the mold of Philip Marlowe. Sadly, the audio was too muddy to make out what he was saying, but it was still very funny.
    *When the Giant's disembodied hand switches on the television during dinner at Hogarth's home, Bird wanted him/it to see the opening from a 1957 episode of the DISNEYLAND show that has something to do with Tinkerbell creating an atom and a rocket blasting off. They never got permission to use this footage.
    *Bird likes to be in the recording studio directing his voice actors, and he'll go to great lengths to get the performances he wants out of them. On THE IRON GIANT, to achieve the proper teeth-chattering effect from Hogarth, he had Eli Marienthal soak his feet in ice water for a while. On THE INCREDIBLES, he ran around the block several times with Craig T. Nelson to get the actor out of breath.
    *Bird credits the artistic success of the film to the high morale amongst the crew. Everyone involved loved the project and wanted to make the best film possible. Many times, people were working off the clock.
    *Bird partially blames his cockiness for the commercial failure of THE IRON GIANT. When the film posted remarkably high test screening numbers, a surprised Warner Bros. wanted to delay the release so that they could figure out a better marketing strategy. Bird was indignant. How could they not have a decent marketing strategy when the film had been in production for over a year? So he pressed them to release the film in the summer of 1999 as originally planned - which they did. THE IRON GIANT opened on the weekend of August 6th, and grossed $5.7 milliion on 2,179 screens. Final domestic tally: $23.2 million.
    *Bird thinks that THE IRON GIANT crew was rounding into form by the end of production. He believes their second film together would've blown everyone away, and seems to regret that that film - RAY GUNN? - never got made.

For those of you who wish you could've been there, here's some very good news: the event was videotaped by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. The fact that this reunion was moved from an auditorium at Woodbury University to the studio's signature screening room suggests that WB has something special in store for THE IRON GIANT. When and if you decide to reintroduce the film to moviegoers, WB, I can promise you that AICN - and fans of classic animation everywhere - will be there to back the picture every step of the way. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

*That's Harry's post-release review. Moriarty was on the case well before that with this review and, a few months later, this interview with Brad Bird. Apologies for the goofy second link, but it appears the original piece was lost to a server move.

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