Rob Blackwelder/SPLICED
SPLICEDwire interviewed Brad Bird on July 19, 1999 in San Francisco
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"The Iron Giant" review

Boyish director Brad Bird celebrates the silly and serious sides of cartoons with his brilliant feature debut

By Rob Blackwelder

Brad Bird looks a little like a cartoon. With his enthusiastic, pumpkin-shaped face and his cow-licked blond hair parted far to the left, he could be Dennis the Menace at age 35.

The inherent 'tooniness of his nature could be a symptom of (or possibly a catalyst for) his impressive career in which he's kept a low profile, but has stayed on the creative, cutting edge of mainstream animation.

In 1985, his sharply stylized, suburban satire short called "The Family Dog" became a momentary pop-culture sensation when it aired as one of the more memorable episodes of Steven Speilberg's anthology series "Amazing Stories." Ask almost anyone who has seen it, and they'll regale you with how hard they laughed and will be able to instantly recall his characters' angled appearance and dubious brows.

A few years later he was an artist for "The Simpsons" -- arguably the most influential and genre-bending animated entertainment of the last 20 years. That lead to "The Critic," a short-lived but deliciously droll and, again, visually unique television cartoon. From the first time he put ink to film at age 11, through his teenage apprenticeship under the wings of Disney legends, through his more recent work on "King of the Hill," Bird has been building up toward something big coming out of the end if his pencil.

And now its here -- his own feature film for Warner Bros. A fresh, funny and extraordinary movie called "The Iron Giant," it is the first legitimate challenger ever for Disney's feature cartoon crown.

A Norman Rockwell-meets-"War of the World" story wrapped around simple, heart-felt themes, not to mention being packed with sharp-witted retro-irony and extra-cool, so-old-it's-new-again artwork, "The Iron Giant" (based on Ted Hughes kids' book "The Iron Man") is a sci-fi fable about a boy named Hogarth who befriends a guileless 100-foot robot, fallen to Earth at the height of '50s American paranoia.

An adventure ensues as Hogarth tries to hide the robot (not an easy task) from a Red Scare-crazy G-man, while Bird takes sweetly satirical jibes at the dawn-of-the-atomic-age culture, including a tongue-in-cheek recreation of a duck-and-cover Civil Defense film on surviving nuclear war and the inclusion of a secondary hero in the form of a beatnik junk sculptor (voiced by Harry Connick, Jr.), looked at sideways by the people in Hogarth's New England town, but willing to put the giant up in his scrap yard.

Not only is it a visual masterpiece with joyously cartoony style that evokes subconscious memories of classic Warner shorts and boasts a hero that is an ingenious, post-war comic book amalgam of gears and armor plating, with friendly, headlamp eyes and the demeanor of a lost puppy. But it's also a deceptively simple story that manages to combine the obligatory social commentary of any kids movie with brilliant observations about the American lifestyle during the Cold War.

I was already enthusiastic about "The Iron Giant" before I met bird in San Francisco to talk about the film. But his ebullient passion for the work he's done got me all wound up again as I asked him how he managed to make such an inventive departure when the animation department of every studio in Hollywood seems to be blinded by a desire to emulate the Mouse House.

SPLICEDwire: This movie really breaks the mold of what people expect from full-length animation, and one of the reasons is it doesn't have the show tunes in it. Was there any point at which they tried to talk you into it?

Bird: Well, the project was actually brought to Warner Bros. by Pete Townsend of The Who, and Des McAnuff, who directed "Tommy." They brought it to Warner Bros. to do as an animated musical (Townsend had done an album based on the book), and I think it would have been a very different kind of musical, because it would have been based on Pete's concept album called "The Iron Man." He had also done a play in London based on those songs and the Ted Hughes story.

I read the book and I liked the book, but I had a whole lot of ideas of my own about what this film could be about. Once it sort of went that direction, I didn't envision it as a musical. Pete was disappointed that the thing he wanted to make wasn't what I had in mind, but he was very supportive of our film.

SPLICED: Warner Bros. feature animation doesn't seem to be in direct competition with Disney. It's so joyously cartoony -- and I love that!

Bird: The thing that I've always responded to in animation is caricature. To me the old Disney films had that in spades, but there is a solemnity to some modern animation that seems kind of like mock seriousness. Most of the films I admire have a certain amount of wit to them -- and I think a lot of the new Disney films have wit to them as well -- but I think that caricature has somehow been taken as a bad thing, when to me it is the heart of what makes animation work. We wanted to be true to the feelings of reality without being reality. So we tried very much to make our characters feel real, but in practice be caricature.

SPLICED: Did you have a lot of creative freedom under Warner Bros.?

Bird: We did. I caught them at a very strange time, and in many ways a fortuitous time. Like every other studio in Hollywood, once "Lion King" made a lot of money, everyone went plunging in. Everybody (was) throwing money left and right, hiring the wrong people for the wrong projects...They not only tried to copy Disney films, but they tried to copy the Disney method of making these films.

Warner Bros. kind of had a bad experience with their previous film ("Quest for Camelot") in trying to emulate the Disney style. I think the film was more expensive than they wanted it to be and it didn't really become the film they wanted it to become. So we tried to take full advantage of that and really make something that was different. We wanted to make this one count.

SPLICED: It shows. It's so creative. Just the post-modern, 1950s comic book design is wildly clever. I saw the poster and I immediately thought, "I have to see this movie!"

Bird: Oh, that's great!

SPLICED: And besides, there are so many things about it that just nail the '50s.

Bird: It was even better at one point, because we did a mock-up for the opening that said "Filmed in Cinemascope" and "Technicolor," but Fox wouldn't let us use the Cinemascope even though we offered to pay for it and pointed out to them it doesn't exist any more and it's just a sight gag.

SPLICED: Well, the sort of loving mockery of the paranoia of the era is wonderful. (An capricious, kid-eating-birthday-cake grin crosses Bird's face.) The mock civil defense film is just too funny, and the bad science fiction film on TV. The beatnik, the Superman, Mad magazine and "War of the Worlds" references -- all that stuff is such a delight. But none of that is from the book. What did you do in consciously creating that '50s mood and how did you arrive at that from the wildly different and much simpler the book?

Bird: The idea I pitched to Warner Bros. after reading the book -- when I said that I really liked it but I wanted to do something different with it -- was I said "What if a gun had a soul?" That kind of stuck with them, so I went further and told them the storyline, with the beatnik character and the Kent character (the G-man), which aren't in the book. The main problem for me about the book was that it veered away from the relationship between the Giant and Hogarth. The meat of the movie to me was this little boy and the Giant, so I felt that if you were going to tell that story, it was good to set it in a climate of fear.

So (I struck on) the idea of having this Norman Rockwell, everything's great surface of the '50s. But when if you really think of the '50s underneath it, there's all this stuff just bubbling over. Everyone was scared to death of the bomb. We were frightened of the Russians and we were frightened of Sputnik, and we were frightened of Rock 'n' Roll, and we were frightened of the Beats and of the poetry coming out of the Beats. All of this was right underneath this clenched, Ward Cleaver smile. So I just thought it was a great contrast.

And it also struck me that the only films that really dealt with the fear of the bomb and technology at the time were the horror movies -- and they dealt with it indirectly. To me there's something that's simultaneously powerful and kind of goofy about those movies. I mean, they work on this kind of nightmare-y level, and yet you can't help but smile at them. I thought that was just a cool thing to bring into animation.

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