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Films
by Kathi Maio

He Can Foil a Nuclear Warhead, But Can He Take on a Mouse?

Life is full of little crises of the conscience. I just had one as I unpacked my new computer this past week. It arrived, as desktop systems usually do these days, already loaded with a bundle of useful software. And almost all of that software came from a little Pacific Northwest firm called Microsoft. (Perhaps you heard of it?)

Yes, without making a single additional purchase, or throwing a single CD-ROM in my new DVD drive, I could, right out of the box, write this column (and transmit it), manage my money, fiddle with a few family photos, schedule my month, set up a database of my video collection, and create an adorable greeting card for my Great Aunt Maude's 90th birthday. And that's not all.

The thing is, like a few other folks, I have this semi-irrational dislike of Microsoft. Oh, I know that Bill Gates isn't Satan--even if he is richer than God. I just don't want the day to come when every piece of software that we purchase carries the Microsoft logo. Therefore, for years, I have stuck with WordPerfect as my word-processing package. I stubbornly resisted switching to Word, even when my various workplaces and most of my friends made the switch to Office suites.

But now Word is sitting on my new hard drive. That stupid little paperclip Office Assistant is calling my name. What to do? Do I load an older piece of software, with none of the latest bells and whistles, onto my computer? Do I sink big bucks, that I certainly don't have, into the latest version of WordPerfect, when I have a perfectly good, quite up-to-date, and almost universally embraced word-processing package ready to rock?

Gentle Reader, I can hear you grumbling. "What the blazes does any of this have to do with FILM?," you ask. And my answer is, not a thing. And everything.

You see, I love animated feature films. And just as I worry about Microsoft's domination of the software biz, so, too, I fret over the near monopoly a certain mouse holds on animation at America's cineplexes.

This concern is fresh on my mind at the moment. Because I have just witnessed the best, most original, Hollywood animated feature I've seen in a long time crash and burn at the box office. That film is The Iron Giant. And, as I write this column, it looks like Warner Brothers's full-length cartoon will make back less than half of its production and marketing costs (of approximately $60 million) in its North American theatrical release.

Disney's vastly inferior and totally predictable Tarzan, by comparison, pulled in something like $170 million (not including the massive profits the film will derive from U.S. sales of its fast food tie-ins, toys, tee shirts, and other Tarzan merchandise). There's no justice in this world. And soon, there's liable to be no competition, either.

I shudder at the thought. So, let me see if I can, at least, boost Warner Brothers video sales at bit, by explaining why you should rent, purchase, or otherwise offer a second life to a movie you probably didn't see in a movie theater this past summer.

The Iron Giant is based on a children's book by Ted Hughes, late Poet Laureate of Britain. But the story fashioned from Hughes's book by director Brad Bird, and scripted by Ted McCanlies, bears only a passing resemblance to the original. Bird ditches the "space-bat-angel-dragon" who commands the last third of Hughes's 1968 tale. Instead, he develops the personality of the title "monster," and carefully details both the metal behemoth's personal growth and his relationship with a young boy he calls friend.

Bird also sets his adaptation in a very specific place--small town Maine--and a very specific time--the late 1950s. This allows the filmmakers to give the film a precise look. (And an exceedingly handsome retro look it is, too!) It also allows them to place a poet's timeless fable into a social context where it makes the most sense. Set during an era when Americans grappled with issues like the proliferation of nuclear weapons, political (red scare) paranoia, and a fear of and fascination with new technologies, The Iron Giant explores how a small rural community would react to a hundred foot robot from god knows where.

If this sounds suspiciously like the classic science fiction and horror films of the fifties, it is no accident. Brad Bird's first feature is, among other things, an elaborate homage to those great old SF flicks of mid-century. You'll certainly see glimpses of films like The Day the Earth Stood Still in Giant's wonderful animation sequences. Other pop culture references are even more direct, like when the movie's boy hero, Hogarth, is forced to watch a "duck and cover" cartoon at school, or when he eagerly enjoys a forbidden "scary movie" about a man-eating brain back at home.

Obviously, these small touches will mean even more to an adult viewer than they will to a small child. And that is one reason why The Iron Giant is a superior animated fantasy. For once, we have been given a feature cartoon that an adult can truly enjoy watching--more than once. (What a change from that sense of panicked dread you experience when the kids put The Little Mermaid in the VCR for the umpteenth time.)

But will kids like it? It depends on the child. Certainly those tykes already addicted to the Disney formula may find The Iron Giant a little deficient. There is no dashing romantic hero here, no wacky sidekicks, no cute little talking animals, and (most especially) no big musical numbers. The Iron Giant is something unheard of in a Hollywood animated movie: a character-driven story that not only doesn't talk down to kids. It actually invites them to grapple with some rather large philosophical issues.

How large? Well, how about death, free-will, and spiritual essence? Then there's the concept that Brad Bird first pitched to the suits at Warner Brothers: What if a gun had a soul?

It would be a mistake to make The Iron Giant sound like Kierkegaard Illustrated, however. So, let me describe the basic storyline a bit more.

A bright and resourceful lad named Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) lives with his hard-working waitress mom, Annie (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) in small, coastal, Rockwell, Maine. It's a peaceful burg, until inhabitants start reporting sightings of a giant, robotic man, as tall as the oldest pine trees.

Hogarth is the first to have a close encounter with the giant, when he saves the creature, who has become tangled in live electrical wires (vintage movie alert!). Thereafter, Hogarth tries to keep his new friend safe and under cover---no small feat when you're new pal is bigger than a church steeple. Eventually, a smarmy xenophobic G-man (voiced by Christopher McDonald) shows up in town looking for the Giant. With a little help from a beatnik artist named Dean (voiced by Harry Connick, Jr.), Hogarth at first thwarts the prying agent. But then, the situation disintegrates badly. When the gentle "monster" is attacked by land and sea, the escalating violence forebodes death and destruction for all concerned.

There's no getting away from the fact that The Iron Giant has a few lessons it hopes to teach. The most important is that each individual needs to make active choices in life to, like Hogarth's favorite comic book hero, Superman, only use one's "power for good." This movie is clearly no fan of guns, nuclear weapons, or violence as a viable solution to any problem. Yet it never seems all that preachy, because it also makes full use of the adventure, humor, and exciting visuals that are staples of the feature cartoon.

I found The Iron Giant to be a completely engaging movie experience. I laughed. And, yes, I cried, too. Moreover, I felt like I'd really gotten my money's worth when I left the theater after watching it. And everyone I know who saw the film-be they film critic, animation fan, SF buff, or neighborhood kid and dad-felt the same. The problem is that all too few of the people I know did see the film. And most of the millions of Americans I don't know also failed to see this marvelous movie.

Why did it tank? I'd like to say that it was an NRA plot to stop the film's anti-gun message from getting out. But the truth is much less exciting and just a tad more complex.

Clearly part of the fault lies with Warner Brothers. They released the movie too late in the summer, after wasting all their marketing budget on that miserable disaster called Wild, Wild West. They ended up doing precious little advertising and promotion for the film. There were no Iron Giant Happy Meal toys. And even the Warner Brothers theme stores seemed to have little interest in selling Iron Giant merchandise. (No, it shouldn't be about toys. But with kid-pitched movies these days, it so often is.)

And speaking of pitching the movie towards a specific tarket-group, Warner Brothers shouldn't have. The Iron Giant isn't just a family film. It is a movie even adults without wee ones in tow might enjoy (if they only hear about it).

And then there's that other problem. I refer to that giant rodent that looms above even a hundred foot tall robot. Disney owns the summer animation box office. And this was Tarzan's summer. As per usual, there was little room for the competition at the multiplex.

Oh, give Disney credit. They know how to build a by-the-numbers cartoon feature. And they certainly work hard at promoting their product, as well. Disney sent Tony Goldwyn (the voice of Tarzan) out on the talk show circuit. (I never saw a single interview with Aniston or Connick in support of their Giant.) And Disney shipped plenty of toys to the fast-food restaurants and the discount department stores. Mr. Eisner's crews got their corporate synergy mojo working overtime to make sure that every man, woman, and child found out about their movie.

So, they won the box office wars. Who cares? Well, I do. Because the bean counters of Hollywood look at box office figures. (Hell, that's all they look at.) And every time one of the projects from the fledgling animation units at Warner Brothers or Fox or DreamWorks has a disappointing showing, it becomes more likely that that studio will scale back its future animation projects, and leave the field of American animated features solely to the House of Mouse.

I'd like to point to Japanese anime as the kind of adult-friendly feature cartoons that could finally challenge Disney dominance. I recently watched my copy of Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), and was enchanted all over again by the artistry of director Hayao Miyazaki. I am thrilled that Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997) is finally getting a U.S. theatrical release. Just as I am happy to have Kiki and this modern master's My Neighbor Totoro available on video.

But Mr. Miyazaki's inroads into the American marketplace don't exactly represent a blow against Mickey's reign. On the contrary. Miyazaki's American videos were released by Buena Vista, a Disney division, and Mononoke's U.S. release is being orchestrated by Miramax, now Disney's art house subsidiary.

What can I tell you? I hate monopolies---and even near monopolies. I hate them even more than the idea of a fine movie like The Iron Giant never finding the audience it deserves.

Do me---and yourself---a favor. Rent or buy The Iron Giant as it makes its way into video. Strike a blow for quality and corporate diversity.

Of course, I say this (I must confess) after typing this column in Microsoft Word.

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