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Big Movie Flashback: 'The Iron Giant' (1999)

Director Brad Bird is basking in boffo box office returns for his first live-action feature, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”

But Bird proved he could tell a terrific story way back in 1999 with the beautifully crafted animated film “The Iron Giant.”

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“Giant” didn’t use computers to generate its characters, and the only bankable star in the vocal cast, Jennifer Aniston, wasn’t even atop the A-list at the time. Bird relied on an old-fashioned story leavened with the kind of mature themes that transform kiddie fare into content suitable for all ages. And he might have coaxed Vin Diesel to give the most tender performance of his action-packed career.

Young Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) is as inquisitive as any boy in ’50s era America. So when he’s not going through “duck and cover” drills at his school, he’s on the prowl for adventure. He finds plenty when he spots an immense robot snacking on spare metal at a nearby power plant.

Boy and ‘bot become fast friends, but hiding a creature that’s taller than most buildings isn’t easy. Hogarth’s Mom (Aniston) is always prying into her son’s life – with the best of intentions, of course. And a government official snooping around Hogarth’s home town wants to be the man who finds the ultimate weapon.

“The Iron Giant” certainly packs its share of anti-military sentiment, and the very notion of a gun can set the Giant off on an emotional guilt trip. Yet the government’s de facto representative (voiced with panache by Christopher McDonald) is actually the film’s biggest thug. The shrewd screenplay, which includes a few mature phrases that bumped the film’s rating up to PG, allows a key military official (John Mahoney of “Frasier” fame) to mature as the story reaches its conclusion.

The Communist paranoia of the era is also in play, as everyone assumes the clanking metallic man is a Russian weapon of some kind. What other option could there be? The “duck and cover” meme also gets woven into the narrative without a hiccup.

Bird’s film is so beautifully rendered you’d probably forgive a glaring global warming message had it slipped into the story. The animation style hearkens back to the best of Disney, with each character’s face conveying a wealth of emotions within just a few cel changes.

The vocal work is particularly appealing, especially Harry Connick, Jr. as the handsome hipster who makes art out of scrap metal. The New Orleans native never got the film career he deserved, but even while limited to just his voice he flashes charisma to spare.

The Giant itself (himself?) cannot speak at first, but he learns a few phrases thanks to Hogarth’s tutelage. Diesel provides the creature’s voice, a booming tone that sounds like it ricocheted around an iron lung’s interior before reaching our ears.

The boy’s relationship with the Giant is never forced, but when the lad confesses his love for the otherworldly being, it’s an emotional moment that transcends the medium.

“The Iron Giant” is currently available in the expected formats, from DVD to Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming services. Blu-ray owners will have to settle for those inferior, albeit speedy platforms.

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