If ever a non-Disney animated movie had heart, it’s Warner Bros.’ “The Iron Giant.” Unfortunately, the studio apparently didn’t have its heart in marketing the film that proved to be a precious gem of warmth and rare wit.
“Iron Giant” is one of the best-reviewed films of the year. In The Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “It feels like a classic, even though it’s just out of the box,” concluding it ". . . echoes earlier efforts like ‘King Kong,’ ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘E.T.’ but with a refreshing spirit of bemused, nonaggressive hipness that is completely and delightfully its own.” Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly called it “a lovely and touching daydream"; the New York Times, Time, USA Today, et al ran similarly glowing reviews. Ain’t It Cool News and other fan sites turned verbal cartwheels over the film.
Yet “Iron Giant” has performed tepidly at the box office, earning only about $17 million in three weeks, far less than such dubious fare as “Inspector Gadget” and “Wild Wild West.” It has passed Warner Bros.’ own ill-conceived animated version of “The King and I” but has yet to beat Walt Disney Pictures’ “Doug’s First Movie,” 20th Century Fox’s “Anastasia” or even Warners’ “The Quest for Camelot,” arguably the worst animated feature of the ‘90s.
In a recent radio interview, director Brad Bird lamented, “Our exit poll results have been outstanding--once we get people into the theater for the first minute, they love it. But the challenge has been getting them into the theater at all--a lot of people simply aren’t aware that the film is even out there.”
Warner Bros. must bear much of the blame for this lack of financial success. Studio executives ignored “Iron Giant” while squandering tens of millions of dollars on “Wild Wild West” and its promotion. They delayed setting a release date until April, which made it nearly impossible for the marketing staff to arrange for the merchandising tie-ins that have--for better or for worse--become a crucial part of the release of an animated and/or family film. The nifty toy at McDonald’s, with which the Walt Disney Co. has an exclusive, long-term marketing tie-in arrangement, has helped that company’s “Inspector Gadget” overcome negative reviews; Warner Bros. had a deal with Burger King for a “Wild Wild West” promotion that can only have helped boost that critically panned film’s performance.
The Saturday after the film opened, I asked a clerk at the Warner Bros. Store in the Glendale Galleria if they had any “Iron Giant” stuff and was told, “Maybe Wednesday.” Friends who have visited the studio’s flagship store in Manhattan report seeing lots of posters for “Wild Wild West,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Deep Blue Sea,” but nothing for “The Iron Giant.” Animation-oriented sites on the Web are filled with complaints from people who couldn’t find the robot models and coin banks in stores and had to order them online.
There is no “Making of” or “Art of” book, as there was for even as forgettable a film as “Anastasia.” Bookstores are filled with juvenile titles tied to “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace” and “Tarzan,” but interested readers will look in vain for “Iron Giant” books--there’s not even a special edition of Ted Hughes’ original story.
Like the classic Warner Bros. shorts of the ‘40s and ‘50s, “Iron Giant” is designed to appeal to a broad audience that includes sophisticated adults as well as children. The studio should have mounted a two-pronged advertising campaign for the film, similar to the approach Disney took for “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast"--one set of posters and ads aimed at kids and a second campaign that appealed to adults. The ‘50s-retro poster is certainly snazzy, but it’s the only visual the studio seems to be using to sell the film. Fan sites on the Web are filled with imaginative ideas to supplement the poster, including billboards with chunks bitten out by the Giant and installations that suggest the junk (and sculptures) in the beatnik character Dean’s scrap yard.
For the last 10 years, every animated feature from an American studio has been either an expanded TV show (“The Rugrats Movie,” “Beavis and Butt-head Do America,” “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut”) or yet another variation on the Disney musical formula (“Anastasia,” “The Swan Princess,” “The Quest for Camelot”). In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that audiences are tiring of that formula--"The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Hercules” and the underrated “Mulan” failed to match the popularity of “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”
One reason for the success of “Tarzan” is that it diverges from those films’ well-worn pattern: The characters don’t sing. The weakest moments in “Tarzan” occur when the filmmakers revert to the trite and true, notably the “Stomp"-inspired production number that brings the story to a grinding halt.
“The Iron Giant” breaks with the Disney formula but maintains a comparably high standard of storytelling and character development. Audiences haven’t had animated characters they could care about this deeply since “Beauty and the Beast.” “Iron Giant” reflects a strong, individual vision more typical of Japanese animation, especially the work of the brilliant Hiyao Miyazaki (“Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Princess Mononoke”). American animated features often lack this kind of personal vision, which is why artists and critics (and, for that matter, fans) usually refer to them by studio, rather than by director.
If audiences are tiring of formulaic animated films, the animation artists are thoroughly weary of drawing similar heroines/heroes singing similar songs, while similar sidekicks make anachronistic wisecracks. One former Disney artist confessed he left the studio because “I just couldn’t stand to draw another Busby Berkeley number.”
“The Iron Giant” proves that an animated feature can be as individual as a live-action movie. The e-mail at Disney, DreamWorks and other studios has been buzzing with messages among animators praising “Iron Giant” and urging one another to see the film again, to take friends, to support it in any way they can. But the animation community is too small to have much impact on national box-office figures.
Another problem facing “Iron Giant"--and this is not Warner Bros.’ fault--is that many Americans still regard animation as something just for kids. “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” broke records because they also were perceived as “date movies” that offered sophisticated filmmaking and compelling stories that spoke to adults as well as kids.
Why Aren’t the Pundits Shouting Its Praises?
The Columbine, Colo., shootings only increased the number of pundits and politicians railing at the violent content of Hollywood films. The condemnations span the political spectrum, from Dan Quayle to Steve Allen. Amid all the hand-wringing and finger-pointing, none of the commentators seemed to notice that “Iron Giant” delivers three extremely positive messages: 1) Don’t judge a person by his appearance: A monstrous exterior may conceal a gentle soul--and vice versa; 2) It is wrong to kill; and 3) Guns and other weapons are dangerous and should not be used carelessly. Critics have rallied around “Iron Giant": The Wall Street Journal even ran an article urging readers to ignore the box-office figures and judge the film on its merits. But John McCain hasn’t hailed it as a counter to the “coarsening of American culture” he’s deplored; Steve Allen hasn’t taken out full-page newspaper ads urging parents to see it. Charlton Heston hasn’t even condemned it.
Keanu Reeves may not have been convincing as a redeemer figure in “The Matrix,” but he looked super-cool in a black leather coat, killing security guards and firing off more ammunition than the Allies used in World War II. That movie made more than twice as much money in its opening week as “The Iron Giant” has earned to date. At a time when film studios are run as businesses, when executives are under increasing pressure from their stockholders to maximize profits, what can they be expected to do when faced with the choice between an inane, violent film that makes a fortune and a positive, top-quality film that earns great reviews but minimal profits? And is it fair for politicians and media figures to condemn that decision when they fail to support a film that gives them exactly what they asked for: high-quality entertainment, suitable for children and adults, that condemns violence? In short, a film like “The Iron Giant.”