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5 Things You Might Not Know About Brad Bird's 'The Iron Giant'

by Oliver Lyttelton
August 6, 2012 1:19 PM
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The Iron Giant

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.

Iron Man Ted Hughes
1. A more faithful adaptation of Ted Hughes' source novel would be wildly different.
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."

Iron Man Pete Townshend
2. The film version started out as a musical, with songs by Pete Townshend of "The Who"
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.

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  • Derrick Jean | March 16, 2014 11:41 PMReply

    God knows how many times I saw this as a kid

  • John | February 13, 2014 2:16 AMReply

    Great article....I remember when this came out, I was 32.... I persuaded my buddy to go see it with me at the theaters. Thought it was awesome. As a collector of Star Wars action figures and Hot Wheels cars, a comic book reader and the sort, I bought several of the action figures with extras for a rainy day. Years later, those figures sold at a pretty good price. I wish I still had a few of them. They will well made but most of all, I still adore this film and am happy for Brad and his success.

  • watson | October 27, 2013 2:06 PMReply

    I find this film very scary

  • Addie | February 14, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    Great article. I read this after watching it on DVD, the first time I've seen it since I was in high school. I didn't get to see it in theatres when it was released as my family couldn't afford it but I saw it on HBO and fell in love with it. It's a movie that will always hold a special place in my heart and I hope my kid will enjoy it in future as much as I do.

  • Alex k | October 12, 2012 12:53 AMReply

    This was the first movie I ever saw in theatres, I couldn't have been older than 5, my dad took my sister and I and I still remember vividly how I covered my ears whenever the giant talked because it was too loud and scary at the time. This movie will always hold a special place for me.

  • Christian T | August 19, 2012 12:42 AMReply

    Add me to the saw it in theaters group. My dad bought me and my brother to it after hearing the great reviews. Now its my favorite movie

  • Singer | August 7, 2012 8:45 PMReply

    I didn't know

  • Dave Carter | August 7, 2012 12:46 AMReply

    Can I brag that I saw this 3 times in theaters? I bought a lightbox from an animator who went off to LA to work on the Iron Giant. A year later I visited the WB studio in production, seeing the layouts and animatics I knew it'd be one of the best animated features ever made. Great piece Oliver.

  • Stevo the Magnificent | August 6, 2012 11:31 PMReply

    It's a sad and damning indictment of modern audiences that unless a film is advertised up the wazoo with merchandising tie-ins, the people won't go see it. I DID see 'The Iron Giant' on it's theatrical release in 1999, absolutely loved it, and raved about it to just about everyone... and 'The Iron Giant' still has the best and most moving climax in cinematic history, if you don't tear up big-time each and every time you watch it, you ain't human, both 'The Avengers' and 'The Dark Knight Rises' endings were clearly, uh, 'influenced' by it...

  • Gregg | March 28, 2014 7:26 PM

    This is my 4 year olds favorite movie. It stands the test of time.

  • Tom | August 6, 2012 6:01 PMReply

    I LOVE this movie. I hope we see Ray Gunn one day.

  • sean hackett | August 6, 2012 1:51 PMReply

    Can I brag and mention that I saw this film in theaters?

  • sp | August 6, 2012 2:36 PM

    Sean, I wish I had seen this movie in the theatre. After seeing this movie on DVD ( or VHS) , this flick became an instant classic in my book. My most favorite animated feature films are : Iron Giant, The Incredibles, & Lady & The Tramp.

  • abel ferrara | August 6, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    October Road? I think you mean October Sky

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