A review requested by Caleb Wimble, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The danger of reviewing The Iron Giant years later is that it's enormously tempting to frame it in terms of how nobody ever talks about it or has ever seen it, and thus joining the seemingly limitless number of essays on the same topic. It's a prime example of the paradox of the film that everybody agrees that nobody else likes.

And yet, as long as we live in a world where The Iron Giant isn't readily mentioned in conversations about the masterpieces of American animation, then yes, not enough people have seen and love it. It really is that good - it is maybe my favorite animated feature made in the English language without any kind of financial stake from the Walt Disney Company. This despite being an incredibly obvious re-tread of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial that waxes nostalgic for boyhood during the Eisenhower era to a degree that should by rights be impenetrable to anybody who didn't experience that firsthand - including the film's director and scenarist, Brad Bird, who was born in the same year that the film is set, 1957. And yet, it's an exemplary work of storytelling that uses its period to inform and deepen its emotions rather than as self-indulgent window dressing, using its boilerplate "boy and his pet monster" hook with a level of sensitivity, charm, and insight into the somewhat ugly ways of childhood like just about nothing else from that particular wing of children's cinema. By rights, it should have put Warner Bros. Feature Animation on the map, instead of serving as one of the primary nails in that studio's coffin, though it had the benefit of raising Bird's already admirable profile high enough that he was invited to the inner sanctums of Pixar, where he made The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and arguably bettered himself. Arguably.

For bettering The Iron Giant is not the kind of thing that happens every day, neither as a work of animation nor as a adventure fable. The story, adapted from Ted Hughes's 1968 children's book The Iron Man (and more directly Pete Townshend's 1989 concept album based upon it) so loosely that it's almost impossible to detect the ingredients beyond the existence of the title character, takes us to the world of the '50s as seen by a child but understood by an adult: it's set in a small town nestled in the Maine woods, the kind that its protagonist finds best for wandering around aimlessly and endlessly riffing on the pulpy pop culture of the day, while the calm, "everything was simpler" attitude insisted upon by the light touch and warm re-creation of period detail runs up hard against the steady hum of Cold War paranoia that's everywhere in the movie even before it starts to specifically direct the plot. This is, then, a child's-eye-view movie released in 1999 that requires a working knowledge of 1950s politics to even start unpacking it, and I suppose this probably has as much to do with its utter commercial failure as anything else (that, and the perversely bad marketing that allowed the film to slip in and out of theaters without hardly anyone but appreciative critics noticing).

In particular, it centers on Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal), a preteen boy obsessed with science fiction and largely disliked by his peer group, leaving him with no companions but his widowed mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston) and his wild and woolly imagination. The first thing to even slightly take him out of his shell comes when he meets Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.), at the restaurant where his mother works; the arrival of a hip artist-type - Dean works at the local junkyard, for the access to scrap metal that he twists into sculptures - is the boy's first indication that people with different attitudes and interests about the world than the rest of the sturdy folk of Rockwell, Maine (how's that for a leading place name?) exist. The more important thing that happens is that while Hogarth tears ass around the woods, playing at whatever goofy superhero nonsense he has in mind that afternoon, he stumbles across a huge human-shape creature made of metal. We know, from the first scene, that the creature arrived from outer space, coincidentally around the same time that the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite and inaugurated the Space Race. That's really all we ever know, and the iron giant can't provide any more information; it received a dent to the head causing it to suffer from whatever robots have in place of amnesia. But for a fanciful kid like Hogarth, with his addiction to comic books, all that matters is that he has a metal man of the coolest sort to be his new best and only friend. And that would be that, except that the giant's tendency to eat huge chunks of metal has caught the attention of the young NSA, who arrives in the form of the arrogant, preening Agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald) to poke around and generally be a prick while Hogarth and Dean work to keep the giant's existence a secret.

That could be, and has been, the basic shape of too many movies, but The Iron Giant is made up of almost nothing but reasons why it's better than all of them. The most accessible reason is the simplest: it has a pair of absolutely wonderful characters in Hogarth and the giant, with terrific performances to match: Marienthal won that year's Annie award for voice acting, while the giant's grunts and handful of coherent vocalisations are provided by Vin Diesel, whose visible career to that point functionally consisted of nothing but a part in the ensemble of Saving Private Ryan that nobody has ever declared to be one of that film's highlights. And yet he's devastating in the tiny confines of the part, turning guttural Frankensteinian utterances of monosyllables into a beautiful portrait of straightforward emotional vulnerability and honesty that ranks among the most moving vocal performances in animation (on the evidence of this and his utterly sweet turn in the 15-years-younger Guardians of the Galaxy, it seems fair to suggest that Diesel's perfect career would consist of nothing but voiceover work with a severely limited vocabulary).

To pair with these terrific performances, the animators created two fantastic characters - the giant is the obvious triumph, a mixture of clunky and sleek elements that evokes '50s sci-fi and comics without being needlessly constrained by it, and permits enough range of motion in the character's face and body that it can communicate all the feelings it could ever need without having to fake it by flexing its rigid metal parts. And it's also the first major character in an otherwise traditionally-animated feature to have been made entirely through CGI, though unlike Disney's awkward early experiments in that direction, the CGI effects were all coated in "paint" that made them match the cel animation more cleanly than in many lusher, costlier productions from the 1990s. But as brilliant as the giant is, I honestly find myself more impressed with Hogarth: the humans in the film are all exaggerated characters of human form, gangly and angular and at times unafraid to be a little off-putting and ugly; it gives the film a hell of a lot of personality and makes it one of the very few major studio animated features of its generation to do anything other than blindly try to copy Disney, for good (DreamWorks's The Prince of Egypt) or ill (Warner's own Quest for Camelot). The downside is that the rushed, somewhat inexperienced team of animators (though supervised overall by high-ranking Disney vet Tony Fucile) was sometimes stymied in making these unconventional shapes move properly, and if I could dredge up the single meaningful flaw in The Iron Giant, it would be that most of its cast can be unpleasant to look at in the wrong ways, and often inexpressive. But Hogarth triumphs over all that; he was drawn with care, patience, and love, and he's one of the most vivid, feeling protagonists in an American cartoon to be found anywhere in that last heyday of theatrical 2-D animation.

The film is a visual success for reasons entirely unrelated to its characters, though; the design team created a version of small town Americana that is at once both detailed and realistic in it smallest touches of props and interior design, while also gauzy in places after the fashion of '50s art (Norman Rockwell himself is a clear touchstone). Even more impressively, it manages to evoke the overblown colors and compositional strategies of '50s cinematography, feeling at times like a bunch of animators decided to turn their boys' own sci-fi adventure into a crypto-homage to Douglas Sirk.

Hell, there are scenes where it plays around with out-of-focus foregrounds to pull attention to the middle of the frame, in a 2-D animated film. Which is one of the most pointlessly showy things you can do, though it adds immeasurably to the film's reality, and the sense that the characters exist in a place that's physically tangible to them, if not to us. If there's a single meaningless flaw that nonetheless keeps kicking at the back of my seat as I watch the movie, it's that it does feel at times a bit too much of a "look at us! we're awesome! we can play with the big boys!" tech exercise; a snowstorm that doesn't need to be there except to show off that the animators could put together a hell of a snowstorm; lighting that calls attention to how difficult it would be to carry it off; a couple of jarringly ambitious camera movements.

But then, as a tech exercise, it proves exactly that, and the fact that this team couldn't keep making movies at Warner to rival or better what Disney and DreamWorks were working on before the bottom fell out of 2-D animation is one of the great lost chances in the medium's recent history. At least we got Bird out of it, and in Bird we have one of the most reliable directors in contemporary Hollywood; and at least we have the film itself, which is all the more precious for being the one shining triumph of the studio that made it. This is, in every way, one of the highlights of both animation and family-friendly cinema in the last quarter-century, a bottomless pleasure no matter how unfairly obscured by market indifference and evolving tastes.