Brad Bird's first animated feature is a delightful fable based on the 1968 book by British poet Ted Hughes, a film that missed at the box office, but which has acquired a strong reputation since. In some ways, it's no surprise that the film didn't achieve the popular heights of a film like The Incredibles: although it boasts a clean, well-told story, much of the detail is likely to be lost on a youthful audience today, suffused as it is with references to the Cold War period of Bird's own youth; it's that rare mainstream animated feature more attuned to an adult sensibility than that of a child, without, at the same time, the kind of knowing double entendres of films like Disney's Aladdin.
Set in Rockwell, Maine - a location whose bucolic nature owes much to the artist, although the visual style is quite unlike Norman's work - the film focuses on a young boy whose active imagination leads him on a walk into the woods where he discovers an unmistakably real, but benign, metal monster, who he promptly befriends. The iron giant becomes a means to comment on the paranoia of the Cold War era - and its aftermath, with the film's commentary on trigger-happy government officials perhaps even more apposite after 9/11. The film is wonderfully rich in detail, whether in the spoof nuclear safety films and black-and-white monster movies, or the treatment of the young boy's beatnik benefactor, nicely voiced by Harry Connick, Jr; though it occasionally misses a certain visual depth - the characters recall Saturday morning cartoons at times - it boasts a warmth and intelligence that should be the envy of most big screen animated features.