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By Brad Cook | November 16, 2004

I’ve loved “The Iron Giant” since it first came out and have always considered it one of the most-overlooked films of the last several years. Maybe its box office failure was an early indicator that computer-generated animation was about to take over, or perhaps Warner Bros.’ poor support for the film led to its quick exit from theaters. (I recall one TV ad that featured a song by heavy metal band The Scorpions, who are nowhere to be found in the film itself; not a good way to attract parents.) Whatever the reason, “The Iron Giant” still seemed to connect with the viewers who either saw it theatrically or gave it a shot on home video, giving it a bit of a cult status. Because of that, perhaps Warner thought the movie was worth another DVD edition, timed to coincide with the release of director Brad Bird’s Pixar film, “The Incredibles,” of course. Too bad they felt the need to cram so much onto one disc that the picture quality of everything suffers.

But I’ll get to that in a minute. Since this film isn’t as over-exposed as, say, “Star Wars,” I think it’s worthwhile to run down the plot here. “The Iron Giant” stars Hogarth, a kid with an over-active imagination who meets the mysterious titular character, an enormous robot who comes to Earth from outer space at the beginning of the film. He lives with his mother (played incredibly well by Jennifer Aniston), a single parent trying to make ends meet as a waitress while renting out an extra room in their house whenever possible. The time period is the late 1950s, when the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite circled the planet and paranoia about the ‘red menace” ran high. Needless to say, some people don’t react to the giant with the same awe as Hogarth.

Harry Connick, Jr. plays Dean McCoppin, a beatnik who tends a junkyard that supplies the materials he needs for his avant-garde art. Hogarth meets Dean and appeals to him to provide a place for the giant to stay, since he’s trying to keep its existence hidden from his mother and all that scrap metal provides sustenance for it. In one of many amusing sequences in the film, Hogarth convinces Dean to take the giant in and heads back home, where he has to contend with a federal agent, Kent Mansley, who thinks the giant is a Soviet threat. The stakes escalate, but Hogarth maneuvers through the situation with the kind of aplomb that sometimes only kids can pull off.

Some of the film’s plot points are borrowed from “E.T.” and similar movies, but “The Iron Giant” features enough unique characters who play off each other so well that you forget about the parallels. The Dean McCoppin character adds a freshness to the story that you would have never seen in a Disney film, and the lack of musical numbers keeps the action moving at a nice pace. Even the giant is endearing—his actions during the climax of the film honestly left a lump in my throat. Or maybe my emotions are easy to manipulate. I know I’m not the only one who reacts that way, though. In the end, this is a spirited adventure cast in a Spielbergian mold.

Warner Bros. touts an “all-new digital transfer” of the film on the back of the DVD case, but you wouldn’t know it. Because the movie shares space with so many extra features that really should have been moved to a second disc (don’t tell me that adding another disc was cost-prohibitive when DVDs are as cheap as they are these days), overall picture quality suffers. Believe me, I’m one of the last people to nitpick a transfer, mainly because I don’t have a fancy home theater set-up (I actually watch most of my DVDs on a Power Mac), but I could tell something was wrong as soon as I saw the pixilation in the black areas of the opening Warner Bros. Feature Animation logo. I could also see distortion around the letters in the opening titles, which means the video was compressed, probably beyond the level it should have endured. (Like I said, I ain’t no expert; I just know impacted video when I see it.)

The biggest extra on this DVD is called “Behind the Armor,” a feature that pops up a nuts-and-bolts icon 13 times during the film and sends you off to a mini-documentary each time you press “Enter” on your remote. They total approximately 30 minutes and run between two and five minutes each, but unfortunately there’s no way to watch them all at once; you have to watch the film with this feature turned on if you want to see them. These segments address many of the issues I hoped to hear about in this edition, including Pete Townshend’s early involvement with the film, back when it was going to be an adaptation of his album “The Iron Man,” which was an adaptation of Ted Hughes original children’s book, “The Iron Giant” (its plot bears no resemblance to either the album or this film, beyond the basics of Hogarth’s relationship with the robot).

Unfortunately, those extras, along with the others, should have been assembled into a documentary that would have found a better home on a second disc. As it is we have a commentary track for the film, which obviously should have stayed on the first disc along with the trailers, filmographies and animatics gallery. The other bonus features include the featurettes “Teddy Newton ‘The X-Factor’” and “Duck and Cover Sequence,” which focus on an animator who Bird felt brought a unique viewpoint to the film. They’re interesting, but they really could have been dumped in favor of some more in-depth material. Each of the eight deleted scenes features an introduction by Brad Bird that explains why it was cut, which is nice. The scenes themselves, which are a mixture of rough animation and basic storyboards, showcase some moments that really should have made it to the final film, such as the giant’s dream. Unfortunately, we have the bean counters at Warner Bros. to thank for their lack of completion.

The original disc had a 20-some minute making-of that was on the WB TV network back when the film arrived in theaters. It’s not reproduced here, except for a brief excerpt called “The Voice of the Iron Giant,” which covers Diesel’s participation. It’s fluffy, but, hey, us fans of the film will take what we can get. So, in all, we get somewhere around 45 minutes of bonus video footage, on top of the commentary track, trailers and gallery. Like I said, moving most of this to a second disc would have helped. In fact, once you did that you could have expanded the documentary materials to at least an hour.

Unfortunately, given that this film hasn’t experienced the kind of second life that, say, “The Shawshank Redemption” has, I doubt we’ll see anything more complete come along. So, “Iron Giant” fans, you might as well pick this one up and give it a spin; hold onto the original release if you really care about that WB special. If you haven’t seen this film yet, at least give it a chance as a rental. It really is an overlooked gem.

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