The Iron Giant
Reviewed by Ari Armstrong
Also with reviews of Toy Story 2 and the Planeteers. This article was originally published at The Daily Objectivist on January 22, 2000.
You are what you make of yourself.
If you think "The Iron Giant" is just a silly kid's movie, check your premises and check out this movie on video. Though an animated film marketed to a young audience, its themes are grand, and perfectly expressed by the compelling story.
A huge robot has somehow landed on earth. He has lost his memory, and to stay alive he has taken to chomping farm machinery and other metallic objects. (Where's Hank Rearden when you need him?) An adventurous young boy sets out to confront the monster but instead finds a vulnerable, lost soul who needs help.
The boy and the robot find a friend in a beatnik who runs a junk yard and who welds as an artist on the side. Meanwhile, an FBI agent is hell-bent on furthering his career by destroying the "security threat" posed by the robot. The agent is an out-of-control power freak with few scruples when it comes to distorting the truth. Initiate force first, ask questions later. (Waco, anyone?)
From the boy the giant learns the difference between the heroes and villains of comic books. Which will the robot become? As he plays in the junkyard, the robot learns bits and pieces about his past. He was built, it seems, as a weapon of destruction. Do the purposes for which he was built determine his moral outlook?
Ayn Rand writes that "Romanticism is a category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition." "The Iron Giant" is one of the best romantic works of cinema from the past year.
Toy Story 2 -- While the Iron Giant defied his past to break his own moral path, the toys in the Disney sequel are bound by their design: they are created as the play-things of children and cannot otherwise fulfill their purpose. Still, they exercise about as much volition as you could hope for given their pre-ordained plastic fate.
The first "Toy Story" treated the child-toy relationship as basically one of reciprocity: the toys get a place to stay and to keep their "off" hours to themselves, and the children get to play with the toys. The main theme of that movie revolved around an identity crisis of Buzz Lightyear, who at first thought he was indeed the fictional space hero after which he was modeled, and who had to come to terms with the reality of his identity as a mass-produced toy.
The secondary themes of the first film, those of friendship, loyalty, and bravery, continue in the sequel and provide the basis for all the good things in "Toy Story 2." This time, Buzz and the gang have to save Woody from an unscrupulous collector. As before, the animation is superb and the humor is riotous. Fortunately, the notion of living up to some intrinsic purpose takes a back-seat to most of the action.
The Planeteers -- "The Iron Giant" is a superb film and "Toy Story 2" is quite good. Unfortunately, the television cartoons many children watch teach a rather different set of ethics. It's a good thing people do have volition, or those children who watch television continuously would surely be lost.
I watched a daily cartoon with my nephews called "The Planeteers" last November. In the episode I saw, the villain had sculpted his face in the rock of a large mountain. One of the heroes said to the bad guy, "When it comes to desecrating nature, nobody's face does it better... except maybe those of the founding fathers." An obvious reference to Mt. Rushmore.
Of course, it was totally fine that Native Americans had drawn pictures on rocks. Indeed, it was considered immoral to do anything which might harm such pictures. Another not-so-subtle message conveyed by the popular cartoon is that buildings can be a form of vandalism, if they adversely affect tribal culture. Children are urged to "reduce, reuse, and recycle," even "reduce family size!" Let's hope that the kids who watch such cartoons will learn to focus on the heroism and ignore the propaganda.
If you have kids, buy them great films like "The Iron Giant" and "Toy Story." And, of course, teach them how to think critically about the messages conveyed by art and culture generally.