Guest Post: Cold of Metal, But Warm of (Animated) Heart

Special thanks to Le0pard13 (aka Michael Alatorre) – the sharp-witted blogger of It Rains … You Get Wet | » Follow Michael on Twitter


I’ve gone to my fair share of animated movies in my lifetime. However, I have to confess when I’ve taken my children to see these, sometimes they (my kids) are really just around for the ride. I’m really the one going to see the feature. And with Toy Story 3 completing the trilogy with a high note last year, I don’t think my children could be more excited and moved than their old man by the time the end credits arrived. For all the years since I was the child, I continue to be drawn to the classic Disney animation pictures of old, and the Pixar (and other modern animation studio) films of late. Some of these, in fact, do not take a backseat to any of the great live-action films I’ve watched. They remain at the forefront in my library collection, as well.

Last year, I discovered that my friend Pop Culture Nerd, fellow PCN-reader (and artist) Shell Sherree, and I share an absolute fondness for a certain animation character and film. Additionally, not too long ago my kids and I revisited another cherished animated feature (easily our umpteenth viewing), which caused something to finally dawn on me. The pair of animated pictures, in question, has more in common than I originally thought. They share some special properties, I believe, even though you could say The Iron Giant and WALL•E are on the flip side of each other in the sci-fi genre.

The Iron Giant

Directed by Brad Bird and released in early August 1999, this animated film is based on a 1968 novel by the late-British poet laureate Ted Hughes. As it happens, the author also was involved in its development and gave approval on the film’s screenplay by Tim McCanlies. Warner Bros. Animation (the successor company to WB Cartoons) produced the film. The feature received rave reviews by critics, which for some unknown reason only seemed to doom it regionally at the box office. Since it didn’t even make back half (barely over $23 Million) of it production budget ($48 Million), it was considered a failure by the studio in the U.S. market. Still, it was a worldwide success since it grossed $103 Million overall. Many media analysts at the time surmised that the WB didn’t know what it had on its hands and mis-marketed the film… big time. The subsequent quick release to VHS tape (remember those?) and disc late in ’99 began its steady upward acceptance among sci-fi and animation fans. It quickly reached cult hit status, and is now thought of as a masterpiece of story and animation.

Synopsis: in October 1957, as the world grows ever deeper into the Cold War with the successful orbit of Sputnik, a giant metal machine falls out of the sky. And while one small town in Maine begins to experience strange and unexplained events, it will come down to a nine-year boy by the name of Hogarth to find the answers.

WALL•E

Released in June 2008, this movie was directed by Andrew Stanton, who also came up with the original story, along with Pete Docter. Furthermore, Stanton performed double-duty on the film as he co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Reardon. This computer-generated film was produced by what still is considered the leading animation studio currently, Pixar. WALL•E was the final story that came from the now fabled brainstorming lunch between Stanton, John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft in 1994. The films A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo were the first of the films to come out of that extraordinary group discussion. As had been expected from this studio by just about everyone, the film opened to critical and box office success from day one of its release. It grossed over $223 million in the U.S. and over $534 million worldwide. The film easily surpassed its hefty $180 million production budget. Its subsequent release in November of that year to DVD/Blu-ray Disc only continued its success with audiences (I have to admit, my family also has an soft spot for the BURN•E short on the disc).

Synopsis: in the distant future, since the Earth’s resources have been depleted and ecology ruined by corporate profit and neglect, only a few creatures inhabit the now desolate and deserted planet. The lone organic and artificial life forms remaining will unexpectedly greet a sleek, but formidable, reconnaissance robot sent to Earth to find proof that life is once again sustainable.

Why They Are Distinct Opposites

What is immediately apparent to anyone who views both films is that each production visually reflects their studio’s distinctly dissimilar technical animation philosophies. Pixar is very much a CGI animation house in their product look and feel, while Warner Bros. Animation films retain the classic cartoon appearance (for the most part). The late Steve Jobs-led studio, Pixar, is a relatively young company so it’s no surprise their work is entirely state-of-the-art computer-generated animation. Compare that to the venerable Warner Bros. studio, its name, and its long-time traditional cartoon pedigree with its Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series of yesteryear. Yet, WB’s mid-line modern hits, and the DC Comics animation film stable of recent times means it remains a player in this market. Truth be told, there were small segments in The Iron Giant where CGI is well employed. But overall, the two films look nothing like each other; with the exception that each remains a film of moving color drawings.

The main characters themselves are also quite the contrast. On one side, you have the diminutive, but long lived, Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class machine (WALL•E) — which has known only one home its entire existence. On the other, it’s hard to see it match up with the towering bi-pedal, metal-munching behemoth which lands on this planet in Brad Bird’s fore-running film. Story-wise, The Iron Giant‘s account is told through the eyes of the small town inhabitants, while WALL•E’s tale is his to tell. Additionally, the giant metal creature has no name or descriptor that can be turned into a clever acronym… or a readily determinable purpose, unlike his compact counterpart. Nor does the colossus have a memory (again, as opposed to our little load lifter friend, who practically lives byway of his collections).

As well, the time periods for each of these films differ dramatically. The Iron Giant touches down during the paranoia of the late 50’s, at the end of the second Red Scare chapter where security and vigilance were paramount. And, where Communism was to be feared. Measure that against WALL•E’s future time interval (in the year 2805) where the aftereffects of Capitalism and carefree, wasteful consumption have already reaped a toll on the third rock from the Sun. Here, there’s no one left to convert or subvert. Everyone has long gone, and left a mess behind. Additionally, WALL•E’s visual sensors offer a telling perspective. Thus, it would seem that they (the characters and films) have little in common. However, I submit that appearances are deceiving.

Why They Are Very Much Alike

Key point: no one (real or artificial) who comes in contact with either of these leading characters is ever the same again.

First off, each of these characters is prominently non-human. However, through the course of their stories, they each attain an almost spiritual, aware state. Each embodies, for lack of a better word, nobility in their films. It’s almost insulting to refer to them as achieving a human-like quality since both of the underlying science-fiction narratives take careful aim in criticizing the less than praiseworthy aspects and traits of said species.

For example in The Iron Giant, it is our tendency to overreact based (and perhaps fed on) by fear and mistrust (in this case, spurred on by controlling, authoritative segments of our society) that’s examined. It may not be a sin, but it seems criminal that this cycles back on us with almost clock-like regularity. Hence, Iron Giant‘s story bears repeating. By the way, look closely and you’ll see the Sputnik satellite appears in both films.

In WALL•E‘s prospective future, while you have technological proficiency, it is corporate dogma and malfeasance that are on prominent display (one only needs to look at the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to see how it applies to current times). In the film, the questioning of authority (in response to such wrongdoing) garners a regulated response to sweep such infractions under the rug in automaton fashion (where have we seen that before?). The challenging of convention, and those in charge of stewarding the people and planet respectively, is an underlying motivation in both films. Moreover, both principal characters represent the mechanized tools of their creators — they are the byproducts of genus and scientific success over time. WALL•E and the Iron Giant are utilitarian mechanisms almost in the extreme (with the quality and capacity of self-repair being major).

However, as the story (and audience) reaches the climax in both films, each machine life form evolves into something substantially more than their originators intended. Director Stanton said it best of his film, but it really applies equally to WALL•E and The Iron Giant:

“… irrational love defeats life’s programming”

At the core of these two specific animation films lies a very similar and tender essence. And, it is through the deuteragonist in each of these films where they locate their story’s heart. It is situated with the 9 year-old Hogarth Hughes in The Iron Giant. And it is literally within EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), the sleek and powerful state-of-the-art robotic probe with her role in WALL•E. Brad Bird (who’d would go on to join and develop The The Incredibles for Pixar years later), like Stanton, pushes his film in an identical open-minded (but touching) direction — even though it becomes clear in the story that The Iron Giant was originally intended as a weapon… a rather powerful one. But, it is through Hogarth, after befriending the metal titan, that the creature learns the real-life meaning of friendship and empathy. His revealing use of comic books (featuring Superman and his antithesis robot counterpart) brings an unexpected insight for the metal being. It learns that it can instead choose what it wants to be. The Giant’s choice — it’s not just about being a gun — at the end recognizes all of that.

WALL•E on the other hand has evolved after 700 years of labor into a sentient entity. One that now knows how alone it really is since it is the last of its kind (on the now abandoned Earth). Making a friend of the eternal cockroach only goes so far, it seems. Yet, it is EVE’s introduction into the environment that sparks the chain reaction that liberates and literally saves WALL•E, and humankind. But, it still takes WALL•E’s selflessness to overcome the ingrained ways of others at almost every turn in the tale. For example, it is EVE that learns to find her capacity to feel (beyond her programming) through WALL•E’s acts of kindness and undying love for her (and her directive). If you’re not touched by each of these animation stories (like PCN, Shell, my kids and I), it’s doubtful this post will reach and convince you otherwise. Still, the culmination of watching either of the two films is not to draw the audience to the notion that love is good. Not hardly. Each story emphasizes a greater, more touching affirmation. The real meaning in both films is that it illustrates (beautifully I might add) how one learns to love.

It is that last similitude that continues to hold my interest and increases my fondness for both films. Never more so than because my children seem to hold it in the same high regard as I do (at least I hope so). And if someday, my children’s children find a similar fascination in the stories of the metal characters with the warm hearts, then there is always something to hope for. For these reasons, both animated films, and their commonality, remind me of an optimistic line from another favorite (live action) sci-fi film of mine, which may finally convince the softhearted among you reading this of the point I’ve been attempting to make:

“You have to look with better eyes than that.” ~ Lindsey Brigman, The Abyss


Have you seen Wall•E and/or The Iron Giant? Well, what are your thoughts about these animated films?

33 thoughts on “Guest Post: Cold of Metal, But Warm of (Animated) Heart

  1. I have to say I’m not that big on animated films but The Iron Giant is probably one of my favorites. Brad Bird has been great with all his films. Interestingly enough he was an animator on The Plague Dogs (another favorite) from the makers of Watership Down. Curious to see Brad’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol film even though I can’t stomach Tom Cruise. If they could have only frozen him in time after Risky Business.

    While Pixar and Studio Ghibli have been great for animation Disney ruined their films for me with their dark history. From putting their films on moratorium to drive up their value to the Song Of The South film which portrayed slavery as appearing pleasant to stealing the original Mickey Mouse character from it’s original creator to the whole suicidal lemmings fiasco for a nature film to under paying the voice actors who earn millions for them for lending their voices, etc. You can read about it online.

    1. Thank you for the comment and thoughts. No question, Brad Bird is a supreme talent in film. Having a run of ‘The Iron Giant’, ‘The Incredibles’, and ‘Ratatouille’ clearly speaks to that. I, too, am looking forward to his big screen, live-action entry coming in December. And for many Tom Cruise (like Mel Gibson) drives reactions in ways good and bad. Ultimately, I’m going watch whatever this filmmaker (Bird) has in store for audiences and ‘Ghost Protocol’ is a good fit given the ‘Bond’ aspects he had going in ‘The Incredibles’.

      Good point about Disney’s history. It’s certainly one the corporation doesn’t want mentioned. There is no illusions about any of the details you bring up. The business of film (live action or animation) is still a business, unfortunately.

      Hopefully, with people like Bird and Andrew Stanton developing and directing film, their artistry will outshine and help overcome those dark characteristics in us (or at least help the audience to forgot about them).

      p.s., thanks for the heads up on ‘The Plague Dogs’, as well. I’m going to try to get the R2 and uncut version to watch.

  2. Ted S.

    Great article Michael, I used to love watching animated films when I was younger but the older I get the less I’m interested in seeing them. Took me forever to finally see Toy Story 3. I really enjoyed Wall – E, I love the visual and the love story between the two robots, I felt it got a little too preachy towards the end but a great film never the less.

    Believe it or not, I’ve yet to see The Iron Giant, I know so many people said it’s one of the best animated films ever made, probably will give it a rent soon. I love Bird’s The Incredibles and looking forward to M: I-4.

    1. Hey, thanks a bunch, Ted. Yes, see ‘The Iron Giant’ when/if you have the chance. I’ve owned the VHS, the widescreen DVD and Special Edition DVD of the film. I’m hoping WB will finally give the film a definitive Blu-ray Disc edition sometime in the future. It’s that deserving.

  3. “The Iron Giant” is an amazing film and one of the last to truly make great use of traditional animation. After “Family Dog,” this film cemented in my mind that Brad Bird is one of our best creative minds working today. I’m so glad that he’s had successes in “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” and I can’t wait to see what he can do with live action in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”

    1. Great to see you here, Jamie. I think I did see that ‘Family Dog’ episode on ‘Amazing Stories’ long ago, but am having trouble remembering it. Now if only those [insert fave inept noun here] at Universal Studios would release the second season of that series to disc, I’d get a chance to catch up with it again. There’s a palpable rush with ‘Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol’ alright and I think Brad Bird is the prime reason (that and I have a thing for Paula Patton ;-)). Thanks so much for the comment.

  4. Hi, Michael and company:

    I enjoyed Bird’s ‘The Iron Giant’ for its 1950s feel, cars and characters. Where ‘WALL* E’ kind of went overboard on in the cuteness and green guilt arenas.

    Both are well done and executed pieces of work, but I’ll take ‘The Iron Giant’ every time.

    May have to look for ‘The Plague Dogs’ and view ‘The Incredibles’ once again. Thought Bird was wonderful as Edna ‘E’ Mode!

    1. Bird as Edna Mode remains a highlight for everyone at my house, Jack. We re-watched ‘The Incredibles’ on Blu-ray back in the Spring and it’s lost nothing since its release. I’m looking forward to checking out ‘The Plague Dogs’, too. Thanks, Jack.

  5. What an awesome post Michael, really my blog is so not worthy! I promise I will watch Iron Giant soon, my hubby loved it n been wanting for me to see it. As you know I so love Wall-E so I really enjoyed your in-depth post comapring the two robots. I love the title you’ve got for it, too! Thanks so much.

    1. Thank you very much for the kind words and the opportunity to share some thoughts about these two extraordinary films, Ruth. I’d also like to commend you, too, for your selection of the images from each film you selected for the article. They work so well and I’m thankful you added them.

  6. Great post Mike 🙂
    I remember seeing the Iron Giant long time ago, I couldn’t quite remember it again now.

    I am not into digital animation, I am still a traditional; animation lover…however I could easily said that Wall-E is one of the best in digital animation.

  7. One of the oldest and best sci-fi tropes is ascribing human characteristics to non-human creatures, and both these movies do it very well, in very different ways. WALL-E is especially notable for doing it (mostly) without human dialogue. The TOY STORY trilogy might be Pixar’s most popular animated films, but I think WALL-E might be their best.

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  9. Fantastic post, Michael! It’s a fantastic title, too.

    I haven’t seen The Iron Giant since I was in a little girl so it’s definitely time to revisit it. I have no idea why but I completed missed Wall-E – literally everyone I know has seen it! I’ll definitely rent is soon 😀

  10. Excellent post Michael 😀 Nice way to compare two excellent animations that are quite different and yet come down to one beautiful message. I need to see The Iron Giant again, it’s been so long!

  11. This is a great comparison of the 2. I actually haven’t watched either one and had a guest author post his review of The Iron Giant on my page as well. I keep meaning to watch Iron Giant, but Wall-E still has no appeal to me. (sorry Ruth, I know you bawled your eyes out on that one)!

    nice post!

    1. Certainly, I’d recommend both. But, if ‘The Iron Giant’ the only one of the two that draws you, it is one well worth seeing. It’d be good to hear your reaction when you do (I’d certainly read it). Still, ‘WALL•E’ does contain a dystopian thread in it (certainly at the beginning) and isn’t just an emotional animation film for that sake. Thank you very much for the kind words and comment, T.

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