By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 6, 2012 at 1:19PM
These days, Brad Bird is one of the most sought after directors around. He helmed "The Incredibles" for Pixar, still one of the company's best and biggest hits, and took over troubled project "Ratatouille" at the last minute, helping turn it into another classic and global hit. And last year, he made his live-action debut with the thrilling "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," which became the biggest film of Tom Cruise's career, and will follow it up in the near future with the Damon Lindelof-penned sci-fi "1952."
But Bird has not always been so blessed. His first feature film, "The Iron Giant," while glowingly reviewed, was a huge flop on release. Loosely based on Ted Hughes' book, the film was set in the 1950s, and followed Hogarth, a young boy (Eli Marienthal) who discovers a giant alien robot (Vin Diesel) who's fallen from the space. Together with his mother (Jennifer Aniston), and her beatnik friend (Harry Connick Jr.), they try and hide the creature from the government, even while it grapples with its own function as a killing machine.
Charming, gorgeous to look at, funny and incredibly moving, it's a film that only found its audience on home video and television, but is now widely recognized as a modern classic, and is perhaps still Bird's finest hour. "The Iron Giant" was released thirteen years ago today, on August 6th, 1999, and to mark the occasion, we've assembled a selection of five facts that you might not know about the project. Check them out below.
Originally published in 1968, "The Iron Man" (retitled "The Iron Giant" in the U.S. to avoid confusion with the Marvel superhero) was the sixth children's book from legendary British poet Ted Hughes, who had been married to American writer Sylvia Plath (and was played by Daniel Craig in the 2003 film "Sylvia"). And had Brad Bird and co-writer Tim McCanlies not departed significantly from the source material, we could have been looking at a very different film. A concise, cosmic anti-war fable, it begins in a similar way to the film, with a young boy, Hogarth, discovering a huge, mysterious Iron Man, who is devouring farming equipment. From there, things differ substantially, however: Hogarth lures the creature into a trap, in which the Iron Man is buried alive. Months later, he digs himself out, but Hogarth saves the day by leading his new giant friend to a metal scrapheap. But soon, a giant creature, the Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon, lands in Australia, and demands to be fed by humanity. The Giant volunteers to help, is disassembled, and is shipped to Australia, where he challenges the alien beast to a test of will, involving the Giant being set on fire by burning petroleum, while the creature has to survive as long as possible in the heat of the sun. The giant triumphs, but the Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon reveals that he's actually a Star Spirit, provoked only by human warfare; it sings to the people of the Earth, causing worldwide peace. Stirring stuff, but it probably wouldn't have flown as a movie (Hughes' 1993 sequel "The Iron Woman" even less so: it involves the titular Giantess seeking revenge on humanity for their pollution of the seas, turning the workers of a factory into swamp creatures, who vomit black goo that turns into "The Spider-God of wealth"). The film version might have been very different, but Hughes (who wouldn't see the finished film, passing away in October 1998) still approved, writing in a letter to Warner Bros after reading the script, "I want to tell you how much I like what Brad Bird has done. He’s made something all of a piece, with terrific sinister gathering momentum and the ending came to me as a glorious piece of amazement. He’s made a terrific dramatic situation out of the way he’s developed 'The Iron Giant.' I can’t stop thinking about it."
In 1986, Pete Townshend of "The Who," whose solo career was in full flight, became interested in the idea of another rock opera, or in his words, "modern song-cycle," along the lines of the band's hit "Tommy," and fixed on the idea of adapting Hughes' "The Iron Man." Three years later, an album, "The Iron Man: The Musical" arrived, featuring eleven new songs by Townshend (plus a cover of Arthur Brown's "Fire," performed by the surviving members of The Who). Featuring Townshend as Hogarth, it also included bandmate Roger Daltrey as Hogarth's father, blues legend John Lee Hooker as the Iron Man, and, amazingly, Nina Simone as the Space Dragon. The project took its first leap into the film world with the part stop-motion animated video for the lead single off the record, "A Friend is A Friend" (watch below), but it was four years later, when a stage version premiered at the Young Vic Theater in London, that a feature film became a possibility. Theater director Des McAnuff, who 'd just worked with Townshend on a Broadway version of "Tommy," saw the show, and suggested that it should become an animated movie, persuading Warner Bros to pick up the rights. When Bird came on, however, he jettisoned the songs and reworked the story significantly, but the rock star didn't mind so much, telling Bird and McCanlies "Well, whatever. I got paid." Both he and McAnuff retained producer credits on the film.