The Iron Giant is one of my favorite movies. Of all time. Ever. I love the art design, I love the story, I think it’s an amazing piece of animation, and I think that the sum of all those wonderful parts add up to something even greater.
And I barely watch it.
Why? Because it is one of the few movies that will make me cry, without fail, whenever I watch it.
Spoilers beyond this point
Most movies that can do that to me are animated, oddly enough. I wonder if it’s because with people I know that we are getting a narrative snapshot of a larger story. A person on screen exists when off screen. On some level perhaps I distance myself because I know that we’re getting a specific vision of those characters. While animated characters are presented in at least as leading a manner, the whole of their existence is what you see. When Hogarth isn’t on screen in the Iron Giant, he’s not elsewhere. I also don’t think of the actor when I see the character. If it’s a celebrity voice then sometimes I do, but mostly I can take them for a different entity. It looks less make believe because it’s farther removed from people I can doubt. There’s something pure about animation that I can believe in whereas real people, not so much.
So what is it that gets to me about this movie in particular? It’s the giant. The giant is one of the most touching stories of innocence and overcoming cruelty that I have ever seen. The giant is innocent, but not in a passive and lazy way, in the manner of children. Children don’t work at creating a purity in themselves, it’s the default. The giant comes from a war machine and lands on Earth. He loses his memory, but that seems to happen before he lands. Once here he takes in everything and builds himself a new personality. That building up is his new purpose. The giant isn’t made and then acts oddly. He’s made, unmade, and remakes himself. He grows out of a seed of curiosity, and his growth is inspiring.
Then there’s the end. It’s actually not the climax that gets me. I mean, I do tear up at that point. It’s a scene of self-sacrifice that has been ripped off by everyone else so many times I can’t even count. It’s the exact ending of Big Hero Six, Avengers, How to Train Your Dragon, Wreck-It Ralph, and so on. I know ending with sacrifice is an established trope, but it’s been done JUST LIKE IRON GIANT so many times in subsequent animated movies that it stands out.
No, what gets me is when the screw begins to blink and beep after the giant’s destruction. And then Hogarth opens the window, sending it out into the field. That moment is so layered that there is when I lose it. You have hope, most obviously. He’s rebuilding himself. You have the giant, who’s endured a trauma much worse than entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, still retain who he is. The strength that he’s built up, and the friendship he’s made with Hogarth survive the nuclear assault and he retains his new purpose. You have all of this crammed into the final moment of a film, right after the denouement where we see how Hogarth, Deen, and his mom are settling back into life. It’s comparable to the opening 10 minutes of Up but comes as a small stinger at the end of the film, rather than lazily hanging an entire movie on that short moment of emotional heft. It didn’t need to be there but because it is, that closing moment is everything.
That last moment also says volumes about Hogarth, too. Early on the giant was a pet surrogate. We know from the first diner scene that Hogarth is lonely and has been trying to collect wildlife with no success so far (squirrel in the pants, anyone?). But over the course of the movie the giant went from pet to friend to almost a younger sibling. The scene in the barn when he’s explaining comic characters to him is a very human interaction, and it’s a transition of regard that Hogarth doesn’t even notice. By the end we see that Hogarth has made friends at school, and that his life in general has just become better. When the screw wakes up, Hogarth doesn’t react as if the only thing in the world he cares about is still around. He reacts as if he’s gotten a letter from a long-absent friend. The dormant screw was just a memento, but setting it free is Hogarth helping the giant heal. Hogarth no longer needs to collect to feel less lonely. He needs to help. And so that’s what he does, and knows that his friend will be the better for it, someone out in the world. It’s a boy knowing that saying goodbye is the only way he may see his friend again. He doesn’t hold onto the screw to make the giant come to him, but trusts in his friend.