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Nashville Scene Ghost in the Machine

Like another film about a tin man with a heart, "The Iron Giant" is a classic

By Noel Murray

AUGUST 16, 1999:  The animated feature The Iron Giant begins with a spectacular storm at sea, during which a Maine fisherman smashes his boat into a 100-foot-tall metal man with eyes that glow like the beams of a lighthouse. But the robot isn't a hostile invader. He's just hungry for scrap metal, and after a power-plant mishap he strikes up a friendship with a preteen boy named Hogarth Hughes. The film follows the boy's attempts to hide his enormous tin pal from a government agent who would rather destroy the beast than learn its origin.

This plot is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's E.T.--at least more so than poet Ted Hughes' original children's book, which had the giant fighting invaders from space, not the U.S. Army. But The Iron Giant has a different purpose than either its overt or covert source material. Director Brad Bird, a veteran of both The Simpsons and King of the Hill, has machinery on his mind, as well as animation in all its forms--not just the cartoon kind, but the force that animates the head and heart.

Contraptions with limitless potential can be instilled with different types of life. Bird initially focuses on the Iron Giant's gentle nature, which seems to make him an ideal, uncomplicated buddy. After Hogarth and his pet robot play hide-and-seek with their civil-servant pursuer, however, Bird starts to look into the eyes of the giant, which can glow like a beacon or cut like a laser. It turns out that the robot has a dark side: a dormant but deadly arsenal given to him by some alien force.

This is what makes The Iron Giant such a great film for children and adults alike--it operates on several levels. An hour into its 86-minute running time, the title character almost disintegrates Hogarth after the boy brandishes a toy gun. Only then do we realize Bird's intention to highlight the giant's potential as a weapon. Just as important, though, is the moment when the robot hero plays with a deer in the forest--the natural and the mechanical both behaving like curious human infants.

Yet another scene deepens the film's thematic complexity even further: Hogarth is teaching the robot about Earth culture (at least circa 1957, when this story is set), and he drags out a stack of comics--chiefly Superman and Weird Science-type pulps about evil metallic invaders. This sets up the giant's central dilemma: Does he want to be a clichd rampaging robot, or does he want to be like another iconic alien who uses his powers for good? The scene also cues us to Bird's own tastes, which show up again in the cheesy sci-fi movies that Hogarth watches, the atomic-hysteria kitsch on the walls, and especially the animation style, which honors Chuck Jones' angular '50s shorts and the chiaroscuro of the Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons of the '40s.

Ultimately, The Iron Giant is about the potential within all living creatures to choose what they want to be, and the power of cultural influence on that choice--a theme that's not subtle, but still profound. Especially in this filmmaker's hands. Throughout this lovely, moving film, an instant classic, Brad Bird shows us his influences, and when he makes his choice, it's the right one. He tells a new story about Superman, instead of another old story about a gun. --Noel Murray

Unhappy marriage

You only get one shot at love at first sight. As far as Julia Roberts is concerned, that moment was 1990's Pretty Woman, a Cinderella story in which Roberts played the role of the street urchin turned princess. And the moviegoing public, enchanted by her frank smile and rough, coltish beauty, fell in love. Since then, she's been our princess--a small-town girl living in unimaginable glamour.

Paramount Pictures tries to recapture that magic moment by reuniting the lead actors of Pretty Woman with director Garry Marshall in Runaway Bride, a kind of inversion of the original Cinderella concept. Roberts plays a hardware-store owner who's become famous for leaving grooms at the altar. Richard Gere, her fairy-tale rescuer in Pretty Woman, becomes her pursuer, a cynical New York columnist who visits her small Maryland town hoping to have his worst beliefs about womankind justified. They've reversed it, see? Roberts dreamed of going to the altar in the first movie, and now she can't say, "I do!" Get it?

Unfortunately for Paramount, Marshall, and everyone associated with Runaway Bride, someone forgot the key element: the leading man. As Prince Charming in Pretty Woman, Gere didn't need to have much personality--the prince is the object of fantasy simply for his title, not for his conversational skills. Here, though, Gere is required to be charming in actuality, not merely in name, as he wins over the townsfolk of Hale, Md. (one of many cutesy puns in the script). Roberts, meanwhile, is determined to hate him. No problem there: Gere's a jerk from start to finish. It's the falling-in-love part that defies belief.

Gere isn't a bad actor: When playing a mysterious, flawed man, as in Days of Heaven and American Gigolo, he can be very effective. But making with witty remarks isn't his forte. That's the only option the talky script, by Sara Parriott and Josann McGibbon, allows him or any other actor. No strong, silent types here--just quirky stereotypes right off the shelf, from the big-city newspaperman to the sex-crazed grandmother. All of them run off at the mouth and gesture wildly to convince you that they're funny.

America fell in love with Roberts already, but the producers seem to think we can still fall in love with Gere. Fat chance. He may be boinkable, but he's just not lovable. With that concept out the window, Marshall makes frantic attempts to recreate some of the spontaneous delight that audiences remember from Pretty Woman. But every moment is forced, packaged with huge bows of sentiment; the result annoys the viewer like a dog begging for treats under the table. Runaway Bride wants to be a second honeymoon, but this marriage can't be saved. --Donna Bowman

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