Sure, A Bug's Life squashed Antz last summer, and Tarzan has all but cornered the market on kiddie fare this season (with "Toy Story 2" looking to clean up at Thanksgiving). But Disney ain't the only animation game in town. For proof, look no further than "The Iron Giant," the sweetly told, deeply humanistic tale of a boy and his new best friend, who just happens to be 100 feet tall and rising high above the skyline of down-home Rockwell, Maine.
There's a good reason the story has a familiar ring. It's been bouncing around since 1968, when British poet laureate Ted Hughes released it in children's-book form as "The Iron Man." The Who's Pete Townshend released a concept album inspired by the book in 1989, and the record was reborn as a stage play in 1993.
Big-screen animation seems a natural home for "The Iron Giant." The story has all the markings of an instant kids' classic, including a likable but not-too-perfect protagonist who's often left alone in his own world; a menacing enemy; an action-packed showdown; and at least two morals, both as easily understood as bumper stickers: "mean people suck" and "give peace a chance."
It's 1957, and the smart, curious Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) already knows how tough it is to be a kid. The other students at school call him "Poindexter," and after the bell rings, he too often has to share his single mom (Jennifer Aniston) with the demands of her job as a waitress at the local diner.
That's where he first hears the frightening tale of a mysterious U.F.O. sighting. According to an overexcited fisherman, a giant metal man has recently fallen from the sky to the sea. The account rings true to Hogarth, a devoted science-fiction fan whose bedroom is adorned with a "Forbidden Planet" poster. The only other person who believes the yarn -- for the moment, at least -- is Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.), the jazz-loving, goatee-wearing, bohemian owner of the local junkyard.
It's not long before the boy meets the behemoth and the two become fast friends, with the man-like machine treating Hogarth to sky-high romps through the forest. The little guy returns the favor with language lessons and a bit of spiritual guidance, straight from Mom's mouth to the giant's ears: "Guns kill." And, later: "Souls don't die."
The tender friendship faces its greatest threat with the appearance of Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), a four-square government agent assigned to investigate rumors of a strange contraption he suspects may be an instrument of war created by the Russians. Or the Chinese, Martians or Canadians.
This is the era of the Cold War after all, and the mood of the period is nicely conveyed by screenwriter Tim McCanlies and director Brad Bird ("The Simpsons," "King of the Hill") via such touches as vintage clothes and cars, townies' offhand comments about the Soviet threat and an in-school film on "atomic holocaust" -- complete with a cheery "duck-and-cover" montage.
Led by crusty General Rogard (John Mahoney), the military eventually makes its presence known, and the full-fledged battle that ensues threatens the survival of both Hogarth and the metal monster. The conclusion offers a hint that "The Iron Giant" might turn into a franchise. Not a bad idea.
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