In the movie READY PLAYER ONE, you’ll find many nostalgic references. Yet, Lena Waithe’s THE IRON GIANT character brings the deepest memories for me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s THE IRON GIANT’s characters like the bright-eyed protagonist Hogarth Hughes or the lovable 50-foot steel force.

Or perhaps, the nostalgia comes from the film’s depiction of a  small Maine town and the outsiders shunned from it. Or possibly, it’s the line by Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.),“but if we don’t stick up for the kooks, who will?” For some reason, THE IRON GIANT meant something invaluable to me as a kid. I’m sure for many of you it did, too.

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Looking back at THE IRON GIANT as an adult, I’m surprised it left such a mark. When THE IRON GIANT released on August 6, 1999, it widely underperformed at the box office. Not that box office numbers matters to kids, but THE IRON GIANT competed with a trove of popular animated films such as TOY STORY 2 and TARZAN that released in 1999.

Nearly 20 years later, READY PLAYER ONE has brought THE IRON GIANT back into the spotlight.  There is plenty of conversation online and at ComicsVerse about THE IRON GIANT reference. Yet, READY PLAYER ONE’s release is an apt time to revisit THE IRON GIANT’s past and present influence on animated films. This visit will require some time travel to 1968.

Nostalgia Brings THE IRON GIANT Back into the Spotlight

Born in 1930, Edward James Hughes — better known as Ted Hughes — wrote the 1968 science fiction novel The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights, which THE IRON GIANT is based on. The husband of American writer Sylvia Plath, Hughes served as the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate from December 28, 1984, until his death on October 28, 1998. He was also a children’s writer. In The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights, he writes about war and peace through the gaze of a little boy. Just a warning, I’ll be spilling details of the book.

In the novel and the movie, people feared the Iron Giant, failing to grasp the metal man’s kindness.

An outer space metal beast called the Iron Man lands in a rural farm town in the United Kingdom.  It eats all the farm equipment. Upset about the havoc, the townspeople including a boy named Hogarth trap the Iron Man and bury him alive. The Iron Man digs himself out a year later but promises to stop wreaking havoc. Over several years, the Iron Man integrates into the community.

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Yet, another giant beast called the “Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon” lands in Australia and its sudden arrival causes panic all over the world. Its intentions are unknown, but it wants food and lots of it. The world’s armies assemble, fearing the end of civilization. The Iron Man hears of this supposedly imminent threat and challenges the “Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon” to a challenge, which the Iron Man wins.

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Turns out, the “Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon” was the not the menacing beast the world claimed it to be. It was a singing space alien. Attracted to the Earth’s distant sounds, the alien arrived thinking it would hear the magical noises clearly. It did not know the sounds were of warfare and violence. The Iron Man requests the alien sing to usher in peace to humanity.

The Movie and Novel’s Themes Still Hold True Today

The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights calls for peace amidst the Cold War and its proxy conflicts, such as the Vietnam War. The novel eventually published in North America, but publisher Harper & Row renamed the title The Iron Giant. Partly, to not step on the toes of Marvel’s IRON MAN.

There are some differences between the novel and THE IRON GIANT. The movie takes place in Maine, U.S. instead of the United Kingdom. The IRON GIANT causes a little mess with his metal-eating. However, it doesn’t know any better. The main protagonist Hogarth Hughes befriends the metal monster and tries to hide it from antagonist and government agent, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald).

THE IRON GIANT’s influence in film is immeasurable.

Strong Cold War themes emanate within THE IRON GIANT’s story. To the U.S. government, the “Sputnik invader” must mean harm.  Kent Mansley will lie, steal, drug people, and bomb a whole town to get rid of the peaceful metal man. Looking at the movie in the current political climate around guns, THE IRON GIANT utters gem lines like “I am not a gun.” I already spoiled The Iron Man: A Children’s Story in Five Nights, so I won’t give away the ending of THE IRON GIANT, but you get the picture.

The Movie’s Influence Goes Beyond Robot-Human Stories

Regardless of how THE IRON GIANT performed, its indirect and direct cultural significance prevails across animation. The critically acclaimed 2008 Pixar film WALL-E also discusses our relationship with technology but looks at consumerism through a tiny robot’s eyes. BIG HERO 6 is an incredible story that also echoes boy-robot friendships and everyday heroism.

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The INCREDIBLES does not have robots galore, but it’s a story that shows how a transformative power or being can change lives. Beyond animation, movies such as REEL STEEL attempt to re-tell the human-robot friendship story that THE IRON GIANT beautifully explores. That’s why the influence of THE IRON GIANT and its predecessors like ASTRO BOY on science fiction stories is one we should never forget.

In 2015, THE IRON GIANT was re-mastered, to much fanfare. When I re-watched it,  the same swells of happiness overcame me. In an age filled with nostalgic nods such as READY PLAYER ONE, RAMPAGE, and INCREDIBLES 2, maybe in another 20 years, THE IRON GIANT will remain prevalent.

Better yet, maybe one day a director will adapt Hughes’s 1993 sequel The Iron Woman. I do hope so. Yet, what I hope for the most is that kids and adults older than me get the opportunity to watch this great film. There’s plenty to learn about friendship, empathy, and difference. Most importantly, the movie’s a great lesson in the power of animated storytelling.

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