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Kids Skip the Darnedest Things.

By Coury Turczyn

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  Sometimes I just have to wonder what determines the box office success of a children's movie: The parents who decide they just can't bear to sit through a particular flick? The commercials on Saturday morning that make one movie look better than another? The sixth sense of kids who can identify marketing-driven B.S. when they see it? Who knows. None of that would explain the success of a feature-length commercial as shallow as Pokémon: The First Movie or the failure of a stand-alone film as wonderful as The Iron Giant (PG, 1999).

Based on the 1968 children's book The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, The Iron Giant would seemingly have all the elements for a breakthrough success: A scrappy main character every child can relate to, a cool-looking robot who becomes his best friend, and lots of action with jet fighters and explosions. Meanwhile, parents can appreciate the artful animation, the beautiful score by Michael Kamen, and the ironic jokes about the film's atomic age setting. But both parents and kids can enjoy The Iron Giant's story: A lonely young boy named Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) discovers a 100-foot robot in the woods near his small New England town. It apparently had crash-landed, leaving a big dent on its head and a hunger for metal in its "belly." Hogarth saves the robot's life from being electrocuted, feeds him, and starts teaching it about his world. Meanwhile, the government sends in an agent to investigate some strange reports of a monster—and he decides the robot must be destroyed. The theme is direct and pure: Those who are different are punished by society, but friendship can overcome such obstacles.

Directed by Brad Bird, The Iron Giant marks Warner Brothers' return to excellence in animation. The home of Bugs, Daffy, and Marvin the Martian had all but ceded the market for cartoon movies to Disney—and for the past 20 years Disney has made a killing. Historically, Disney was the studio that produced syrupy kiddie epics while WB captured older kids and adults with the satiric antics of the Looney Tunes crew. Yet, for a couple of generations, WB had abandoned its creations as Disney kept churning out classy singing animal pics. Then, in 1998, WB reentered the market with an ill-advised Disney knock-off, Quest For Camelot. All hope seemed lost for fans of Warner Bros. animation, but with The Iron Giant they have reason to cheer: it's original, smart, and sweet—not wickedly funny, perhaps, but genuinely entertaining.

So why'd it flop? Could it have been too original, too smart, too sweet? No matter. It's a great movie, and it ought to be enjoyed. Here's hoping Warner Bros. doesn't give up on making animated features of similar quality.

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