The name of the man may not be familiar to you, but the films he has directed certainly are. From THE INCREDIBLES to MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL, Brad Bird, maintains some impressive work in his portfolio. Perhaps one of his most notable works though is his directorial debut, THE IRON GIANT.

It is a heartfelt tale that revolves around the relationship between a young boy named Hogarth Hughes and a friendly, metal-eating robot. Initially, it may seem like your average family film. Upon closer look though, THE IRON GIANT presents a rich story that will push you to take another look at the way you answer the question, what does it mean to be human?

the iron giant
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A Tale Of Difference

The work itself may appear to be about difference. However, the film is less about difference and more about the perception of difference. We never become aware of those responsible for the Iron Giant’s initial creation. Despite this, we come to realize that the friendly robot was designed to be a weapon since he transitions into a destructive mode whenever his “consciousness” detects some weapon. Even when he becomes aware of this though, Hogarth believes that his companion can defy his inherent nature.

In a way, this aspect of the tale parallels the civilization versus savagery debate that is common throughout literature, film, and other mediums. Yes, the Iron Giant was created for an inhumane purpose. However, his time with an innocent child who maintains an optimistic view of the world has been impressed upon him. If the Iron Giant did not perceive the world as Hogarth did, he would not have sacrificed himself to save Hogarth’s town during the climax of the film.

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So, it seems as though the film suggests that one can defy an inherent facet of their character if they find themselves believing in something that provides them with a new reason to live. With this, though Hogarth and the Iron Giant originate from different backgrounds, they still perceive each other’s differences as traits they can learn from.

the iron giant
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A Tale Of A Hero

It is not difficult to distinguish the antagonist in this film. Kent Mansley, a character who only perceives others one-dimensionally, challenges the nature of the Iron Giant. Unlike Hogarth, he fails to perceive the Iron Giant as anything more than what he was made for. Mansley ultimately fails to understand that the robot maintains more humanity than he does.

The concept of defining humanity has been a popular theme throughout film history. Films such as BLADE RUNNER present some truly thought-provoking narratives that call into question the way in which individuals perceive themselves regarding others. Regarding the Iron Giant, he always wanted to defy the simple natures of humanity. He wanted to go above and beyond to embody the conduct of Superman.

Through this ambition, our friendly neighborhood robot exemplifies the archetype of the hero. Despite not having these characteristics upon his creation, he exhibits empathy, sacrifice, and perseverance. Along with this though, the Iron Giant still exhibits his own inner conflicts. The film depicts him struggling to resist his destructive tendencies various times.

Though one may perceive this aspect of the Iron Giant’s nature in a negative light, it truly makes the character more human and thus more relatable. Despite the fact that he relentlessly perseveres to be a hero and maintain a good nature, he still has flaws. Imperfections are ingrained in human nature, and the Iron Giant is no stranger to them.

A Tale Of Life Itself

The relationship between the Iron Giant and Hogarth is intriguing for various reasons. One of the many is the fact that Hogarth, a child, is the one teaching his companion the lessons of life. Among these lessons is the impermanence of life. Considering that Hogarth is only nine-year-olds, one may think that he does not understand the concept of mortality.

However, though the film does not go into detail, it appears as though Hogarth lost his father at an incredibly young age. Hogarth ultimately understands the inevitability of death. With this though, it appears the film alludes to the immortality of an individual’s legacy.

READ: Check out a previous entry of RETROspective on NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, here!

After the Iron Giant sacrifices himself to save Hogarth’s hometown, citizens of the town construct a statue honoring the robot’s sacrifice. Along with this, Hogarth receives a remnant from the Iron Giant’s construction to keep as a memento. After some time, the remnant begins to move and makes its way back to the Iron Giant who awakens as he begins rebuilding himself so that he may find his way back to Hogarth.

So, though the film does not make any explicit commentary on mortality, it does allude to its accompanying themes. If one’s impact on another’s life is significant enough, those two individuals will inevitably find their way back to each other whether it is through a memento or memory. The film presents mortality a little more complex than what we’d initially assume for it explores the imprint one can leave on your life without you even realizing.

the iron giant
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

A Tale To Remember

The first time I watched THE IRON GIANT was when I was six years old. Upon my first time viewing the film, I had no idea what it meant. Perhaps I still do not understand the messages the film is intended to convey since there are a variety of interpretations one can have on a film as rich as this.

One thing we can all probably agree on though is that it makes you think a little more about what it means to be human.

“You are who you choose to be.”

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