Will Warner's front office fumble the ball when it counts again? FATHER GEEK sure hopes not. I've read the script, it's great! We've got stacks of art laying all over Geek Headquarters, it's great! I've seen some of the rushes, they're great! Your coaching staff and Team driving THE IRON GIANT have the abilityto to win the game bigtime! Its your game to lose suits and FATHER GEEK doesn't want to see that happen again. Read what our evil genius has to say...
I thought I’d take a break from my ongoing instigation of my Evil Master Plan To Rule The World and try something a little different.
Today, I want to tell you a story about heroes.
Right now, somewhere in Glendale, there’s a whole group of heroes working tirelessly to finish an extraordinary gem of a picture, a very special film that deserves, in my opinion, to be one of the year’s biggest hits.
Unfortunately, there are forces in play on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank that threaten to undermine this movie, force that are working against their own best interests. This is a studio that’s spent several years now making every possible mistake, making lousy films and then marketing them badly. Now, suddenly, they’re in position to turn everything around. They’ve got the no-questions-asked hit THE WILD WILD WEST, the better than average action SF film THE MATRIX, the guaranteed big buzz film of the year EYES WIDE SHUT, and the sure-to-be-adored THE GREEN MILE. With a reversal of fortune within their reach, they’re getting justifiably excited...
... and they’re in danger of making a massive mistake in the process. There’s a film that they have yet to pay any attention to, something they’ve spent no time or money or energy on, and it has the potential to the greatest success out of any of this year’s releases.
I’m writing, of course, about Brad Bird’s debut feature, one of the finest animated films I’ve ever seen, THE IRON GIANT.
I am a lifelong fan of animation. It’s one of my favorite mediums of storytelling. The potential available to the animated filmmaker is limitless, although it sometimes seems that potential goes largely untapped in an industry where everybody does their best to mimic Disney’s moves. International animation offers us some real choices with artists like Nick Parks, the bolex brothers, The Quays, Jan Svankmajer, and my new favorite Miyazaki. Here in America, it’s very rare to see a personal vision slip by in feature-length work. There are mavericks like Bill Plympton with his bizarre and occasionally brilliant I MARRIED A STRANGE PERSON, but there’s nothing on the studio level. Don Bluth, the Kroyers... you’re talking about little more than competent craftsmen who are in no danger of ever leaving any sort of personal imprint on a film. Part of the reason for that industry-wide gutlessness is the irrational fear that nothing but the Disney model will make a return.
Case in point: THE QUEST FOR CAMELOT. A textbook about project mismanagement could be written using QUEST as a model. The end result was painful, uninspired trash that’s virtually indistinguishable from tripe like THE SWAN PRINCESS and the new KING & I. As the debut of a feature studio, QUEST was a disaster, a financial hole in Warner’s 1998 lineup. After such an inauspicious start, it’s no wonder they lost their nerve. The fallout from the film is still being felt as upper execs from the studio debate the future of the animation unit.
For over a year, they’ve been struggling to make a decision regarding the Jim Carrey remake of THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET. Every FX house in town has created test footage for the film. By this point, they could probably just string the tests together and release them. After all this effort, it appeared that the studio had finally made the entirely rational and reasonable decision to give the job to the outstanding team they’ve got assembled in Glendale. Now, with the film’s start date approaching, it appears that ILM has swooped in with a low bid, and Warner is once again considering going out of house with the work after all.
That would be a shame. It’s as if Warner has already declared themselves out of the race, leaving the market to Dreamworks and Disney. Allow me to address Lorenzo Di Bonaventura directly for a moment. No one expects it, sir, but you’re in position to do the unthinkable and beat both the Mouse and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s superstar upstart at their own game. You’ve got the goods, but no one’s going to know unless you shout it from the rooftops. Since you haven’t started yet, and since I’m hearing rumblings about studio indifference, allow me to officially start the buzz right here, right now. Believe me... it would be an honor.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Brad Bird, you may remember a short film of his that aired on AMAZING STORIES called “Family Dog.” It was hysterical, one of the highlights of that series. Since then, Brad’s contributed to the original success of TINY TOONS and has been a central contributor to the creative high watermark consistently set by THE SIMPSONS. When I first heard that he would be directing an animated feature, I was excited. Most animated films these days are the work of a committee, with two directors being more common than not. Knowing how important creative integrity is to Brad, I was sure his films would be, at the very least, a singular vision.
In anticipation of the film’s release, I put my mutant henchmen to work, sending them out in search of an early print of the film. Using a vehicle much like the one Peter Cushing drove to the center of the earth, one of them managed to tunnel onto the lot and return with a rough cut that I was able to screen. With roughly 35% of the film in finished composited color, the film is already an absolute masterpiece.
Based loosely on an old children’s book by Ted Hughes as well as a concept album by Pete Townsend, THE IRON GIANT is the story of Hogarth Hughes, a boy living in a small town in the mid ‘50s. Like most boys his age, he thinks MAD magazine is hysterical, he’s bored by BOY’S LIFE, and he’s absolutely totally crazy about SUPERMAN.
Living with just his mother (voiced with sincerity and warmth by Jennifer Aniston), Hogarth adopts animals habitually, bringing home anything he can, hoping each time for a real friend. Dean (an excellent vocal performance by Harry Connick Jr.), owner of a local scrap yard and a bit of a beatnik, has noticed Hogarth’s mother Annie, and he’s got a friendly, teasing relationship with the boy, but there’s no one Hogarth is really close to...
... until the night the Giant falls out of the sky. Initially splashing down in a local bay during a rainstorm and scaring the hell out of a local fisherman in the process, the 60-foot high robot (voiced by SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s Vin Diesel) hides in the local woods. This is where he and Hogarth come face to face one night in a memorable, eerie first encounter that’s as iconic as the trail of Reese’s Pieces that brought E.T. into Elliott’s life.
Unfortunately, the Giant also draws the attention of Special Agent Kent Mansley (voiced with memorable smarm by Christopher McDonald). After a series of clues bring Mansley to Hogarth’s door, the boy has no choice but to turn to Dean for help in keeping the Giant out of sight.
The middle of this picture is soaked in a lovely, aching nostalgia, and the work these filmmakers have done on Hogarth is outstanding. He’s one of the most realistic recognizable movie kids ever, and there’s a purity to him that brought Waterson’s outstanding CALVIN & HOBBES to mind for me, especially in one charming moment involving swimming, diving, and one hell of a cannonball.
Brad Bird and his co-screenwriters Tim McCanlies and Andy Brent Forrester have allowed time for us to see real friendships develop. The Giant, not sure where he came from or why he was built, is shown the world through Hogarth’s eyes, and in return, he proves to be the best friend Hogarth could ever have.
Up to this point, I thought the film was highly entertaining with a warm, simple, unpretentious design, a subtle, sweet sense of humor, and featuring an impeccable marriage of 2D conventional animation and 3D computer modeling. That was before the scene with the hunters. At that point, IRON GIANT became something else. It became one of my favorite films, a classic, and something that should be one of Warner’s top priorities.
This isn’t a musical, thank god. It’s also not, strictly speaking, a children’s film. Instead, it’s a moral fable with an astonishing amount of heart. It’s about the choice each individual must make regarding who and what they are. Some people claim you are what you’re born to be, but this film passionately argues that you are what you make yourself. There’s an act of heroism at the end of this film that’s so emotionally pure, so ethically simple, that the Giant’s single line in the midst of it reduced me to tears and speechlessness. Not since PINOCCHIO has any moment in any animated film affected me on such a direct level. It was a punch in the gut, unexpected, and absolutely right.
It’s also going to be a lightning rod for controversy. IRON GIANT is a film that actually takes a position, that actually voices a belief, and my viewing of the film (the first of many, I’m sure) was bracing, a revelation. For all the hype that accompanied the release of PRINCE OF EGYPT, the film left me cold. Yes, the artistry is impressive, even overwhelming in places. The film never once pulled me in completely, though. The songs were distracting and the tone of the film was wildly uneven. It felt like Katzenberg was trying to prove he understood the Disney formula better than Disney does. Brad Bird’s film feels like Brad doesn’t care about Disney in the least, and it’s glorious.
Now, we’ve all been hearing a lot about TARZAN recently. Once I saw IRON GIANT, I decided that I should see TARZAN so I could make a fair comparison of the two. After all, if TARZAN is really as good as that first trailer, then it would be suicide to bring this film out in competition with it, right?
Well, it probably would be a mistake, but for all the wrong reasons. The first half hour of TARZAN makes it real easy to cut that killer trailer. From the beginning of the film to the moment Tarzan truly becomes Tarzan, cutting loose with the classic Weismuller yell, the movie works really, really well. With the exception of the scene where Jane is chased by the baboons, the rest of the movie is an absolute waste of time and energy. Despite the film’s flaws, they’ll market this beautifully, and the film will at least break the $150 million average their last few releases have established. Doesn’t deserve to, but it will.
It’s a genuine disgrace, too. Glen Keane is one of the finest animators working, possibly ever, and the work he does on the character Tarzan is exceptional, both expressive and inventive. Unfortunately, once Tarzan grows up, he’s given nothing to do. The film’s “bad guy” is so poorly written, so underdeveloped, that there’s no tension, no real drama. The pedestrian voice work by Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Brian Blessed, Nigel Hawthorne and (especially) Rosie O’Donnell doesn’t help.
TARZAN does contain some fascinating technical work. The new texture mapping software they used gives the jungle setting a lush, dense look that’s vivid, alive. The problem with that is the inconsistency between the characters and the backgrounds makes it abundantly clear what’s what. Tarzan, Jane, Clayton, Kala, Kerchak and the others are never completely integrated into the world around them. The new technology has definite potential, even if its use here is imperfect.
IRON GIANT, on the other hand, makes great technical leaps but never once rubs the viewer’s face in it. Using a combination of the Maya and Animo software packages, they’ve mastered the compositing of the 2D lead characters and the 3D Giant and backgrounds, using the same palette on both, giving the whole film a uniform, perfectly blended feel. This is work good enough to demand a Technical Achievement Academy Award in 2000, but it’s so well done that it might be easy to miss.
In dropping the ball to such a significant degree with TARZAN, Disney has proven once again that they’re afraid to break formula. Despite Glen Keane’s best efforts, there’s no heroes anywhere near this film. They don’t even know the real meaning of the word.
Brad Bird and his team have proven themselves to be real heroes, working to craft a piece of special entertainment that genuinely expands the art form, demonstrating a love of their craft and a real respect for the audience.
That leaves only one question mark: what will Warner Bros be -- heroes or villains? Each decision they make now is crucial: release date, the cutting of the trailer, the composer of the score. I’d like to offer my thoughts for consideration.
RELEASE DATE: This is going to sound insane and it’s going to require you to muster all the nerve possible, but I’d release it either the weekend before or the weekend after EYES WIDE SHUT. You’ll own July from one end to the other if you do. Yes, you’ll be butting heads with TARZAN, but so what? You’ve got the better movie. Believe it. Act like you believe it.
THE TRAILER: Introduce America to your newest classic character. “Warner Bros. has a history of introducing you to characters that the whole world loves -- Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Batman, Superman -- and now there’s a new hero.” BLAM! Use that full scope frame. Burn some of those images into America’s brain. Prove to them that they can’t afford to miss IRON GIANT.
And once you’ve cut this amazing trailer, do the right thing. Send out 3,000 copies of it for the weekend of May 21. Use the opening of MATRIX to sell WILD WILD WEST, but use STAR WARS to sell the very best you’ve got.
THE COMPOSER: I hear you’ve got two men in the running right now -- Danny Elfman and John Williams. I know Brad and Danny worked together on “Family Dog,” and the Elfman temp track does work for your film now, but give the job to Williams. He could write a classic score here, and he could even reference his own SUPERMAN score. You know the scene... imagine just a hint of that classic theme at just the right moment. It would give everyone chills.
As I said, this story is about heroes. It’s also unfinished. Here’s hoping the appropriate happy ending gets written by Lorenzo and his bosses. Until the day this film opens, we here at AICN will cover it, doing our best to prepare you for one of what look like a number of extraordinary movie experiences this year. As readers of this page, you obviously are always looking for that pure cinema kick, those instant classics, and you count on us to bring you first word of them.
It’s films like this that make it worth doing.