When the animated film The Iron Giant opened in the late summer of 1999—one of the biggest summers in Hollywood history up to that point, with movies like The Matrix, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and Disney’s Tarzan raking in millions—it landed with a thud at the box office, even though it was beloved by critics everywhere. The film, about the friendship between a boy and an alien robot in the heat of late ’50s paranoia, eventually went on to greater success on home video, and is now considered an animated cult classic. A new Blu-ray Signature Edition is coming this fall, with scenes newly completed for the home video release of the film, as well as the hour long documentary The Giant’s Dream, which premiered at WonderCon in Los Angeles last week.
The Giant’s Dream isn’t just the story of the making of The Iron Giant, but also the story of the mad rush to produce animated films from just about every studio in Hollywood in the ’90s. This was in the wake of Disney’s remarkable late ’80s/early ’90s comeback, which started with The Little Mermaid and peaked with The Lion King. Mostly, though, this documentary is really the story of a creative genius named Brad Bird, who was ahead of his time in many ways, and kept pushing the system to treat animated film as more than a just cheap product for little kids who’d go see anything. Instead, Bird treated animation like art.
The new documentary starts with a piece of old animation made by Bird himself as a youngster, where a voiceover from the man himself tells us that ever since he was a small kid, he had dreams of being an animator. Unlike many others with similar aspirations, he actually never gave those dreams up to settle for something more “realistic.” I should note that instead of the standard talking heads, this documentary is peppered throughout with illustrations from Bird as a means of telling his life story. Interestingly, even though the story goes through many decades, Bird always draws himself as a little kid, which is kind of endearing.
The folks at Walt Disney Animation were so enthralled with this brilliant young kid they gave him a scholarship to Cal Arts, where he studied, among the first graduating class, alongside future Pixar/Disney creative officer John Lasseter and director Tim Burton. From Cal Arts, Bird was offered a job at Walt Disney Animation straight away.
But this was in the early ’80s, a rough time for animation in general. Everything was being done on the cheap, and Disney wasn’t the powerhouse they had been or would become again. Brad Bird kept challenging the staff at Disney on the way things were being done, and it totally rubbed them all the wrong way. His time there was short-lived, and he felt his dreams soon crumble after he was fired. Soon after, his sister was killed in an act of gun violence; the documentary shows how this was all a long, dark time for Bird.
His career would recover, as he’d end up working on shows like Amazing Stories and The Simpsons. When the Disney animation boom of the early ’90s happened, every other studio in town was trying to cash in on it, mostly by ripping off the Disney format (this was the era of wannabe Disney fare like Anastasia and Quest for Camelot). For his first full length film, a 40-year-old Bird decided to tackle the 1968 Ted Hughes sci-fi novel The Iron Man (retitling the story to The Iron Giant for obvious reasons).
Bird was determined to make the film the right way, and not just another paint-by-numbers wannabe Disney film. He approached the story of the movie with a very basic premise: “What if a gun had a soul, and didn’t want to be a gun?” It’s a pretty serious idea for a kid’s movie, and even more so for someone who had lost a loved one to gun violence. But that idea is what gives the movie its heart. We can be more than what we were made to be, or are told we can be. It’s why this film resonates so much with those who love it.
The documentary is filled at this point with great vintage footage of the making of the film, and you can see how every single person involved with the movie, from the animation crew—which was mostly made of other Disney rejects like Bird—to the voice cast, which includes Vin Diesel, Jennifer Aniston, and Harry Connick Jr, were putting their all into this. You can tell from the footage that they knew they had a classic on their hands. Sadly, Warner Bros didn’t realize this, or care. They dumped the film with next to no promotion, despite the fact that the movie tested through the roof with audiences. The Iron Giant became one of Warner Bros Feature Animations’ last theatrical films to release in 2D.
The doc contains a great soundbite from director Guillermo del Toro, who personally called Bird to congratulate him on the film soon after it opened in theaters. He reminded him that quality always wins out in the end. People might not recognize that the movie is a classic at the moment, but eventually, they would. And he was 100% right.
The documentary of course has a happy ending, as Bird would return to Disney/Pixar not long after the release of the film. He’d go on to direct both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, not to mention the live action films Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and last year’s Tomorrowland. (And we all know Vin Diesel’s career turned out okay, too.) All in all, The Giant’s Dream is a great little documentary about how real quality wins out in the end, and true talent is rewarded… even if it takes a little while for the rest of the world to catch up.
The Giant’s Dream will be available as part of the Signature Edition Blu-ray of The Iron Giant, which is set to come out on September 6, 2016. You can see preliminary art for the box set below:
RATING: 4 OUT OF 5 BURRITOS
Images: Warner Bros.