I will never forget watching The Iron Giant in theaters and sobbing. I was seven years old, and while I’d seen characters die onscreen before, watching the Giant blow up was something that would stay with me. Even now, when that ending sequence begins, I start bawling because it’s such a beautiful moment. Still, as a part of animated film history, The Iron Giant has a really interesting backstory.
The Iron Giant was inspired by a Ted Hughes children’s book called The Iron Man, and they have very few plot similarities beyond the title and themes of challenging warfare and inter-human conflict. However, when it got into the hands of Brad Bird, who directed the movie—and went on to make The Incredibles, one of the greatest Pixar movies ever—he latched onto the project because of a personal tragedy in his own life.
“What if a gun had a soul? And that was based on a personal connection because my sister Susan had died because of gun violence,” he said, according to IndieWire. “I wasn’t thinking consciously about it when I proposed the idea, but my feelings about [gun violence] are in the film and it’s dedicated to her at the end,” Bird said. “That was in many ways the hardest part I had to deal with.”
Hand-drawn animation was slowly being phased out at the time, and with Quest for Camelot (an underrated gem, tbh) being a huge box office failure only making $38.1 million against a budget of $40 million, The Iron Giant was already a risky endeavor. It had a large budget, a very strong political message, and despite the final reveal (spoilers for a 20-year-old movie?) that the Giant lives, the movie is a sad bummer at times. However, early screen tests showed that audiences were moved by it.
Unfortunately, Bird took that to mean it made sense to push the film into theaters, even though Warner Bros. hadn’t really done any advertising for it at the time. Bird explains that he was feeling confident that word of mouth and the critical acclaim would allow the movie to be a success. As we know, that wasn’t the case:
Warners was intending to put the film on the shelf and wait for a slow spot at some future date and they could slip it out there. And when the film got a huge response at a test screening, they had not laid the groundwork for it. To their credit, they knew they had to delay the release and lay the correct track for it. And I stupidly said, no. I was feeling cocky because the scores were so good, and I said to just put it out there. So they did, and no one knew what the hell it was. I’ll take part ownership in pushing it out into the world too soon as well. They offered to do what was necessary, and I bulldozed them. All the calculations were that if we had $8 million on the opening weekend, word of mouth would carry it the rest of the way. It made $5 million, and we were DOA.
Despite the weak box office (it only made $31.3 million), it survived on home video, and for those of us who saw the movie in theaters, it was passed on as a cult classic. When I talk to my peers about animated films that affected them, The Iron Giant is right up there with films like The Lion King and Toy Story as tearjerkers.
When asked about the state of animation now, the director admitted that he longs to see more originality and less sequels and remakes. “I would love to see studios have a more adventurous attitude,” he said. “We shouldn’t take this valuable time to repeat the same stories or with the same characters over and over again. That’s fine, and it has its place. Certainly, great films continue to be made with familiar characters. I’ve done two sequels [“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” and “Incredibles 2″]. But they should not be the preponderance of what makes up our diet. ‘Spider-Verse’ introduced a lot of really cool mix-and-match graphical styles in a really interesting way. The more we all do one kind of style, the less interesting it is for the audience. It needs to grow aesthetically. People will support it.”
We will, and then we will cry about it our entire lives.
(via IndieWire, image: Warner Bros)
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