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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Growing With Film: Wising Up With “The Iron Giant”

Eli Flesch

My column thus far has dealt with adult issues that include, but are not limited, to the power of stereotypes, drug use and sexual maturation. Today, we’ll take a step back from the ‘R’ rated movies and look at Brad Bird’s 1999 The Iron Giant. I have seen this film twice in my life — once as a thumb-sucking five year old, the other as a head-in-the-clouds college student. I’ve got to say, the movie got my tears a-flowin’. This came mainly as a result of its surprisingly candid look at the power of death in childhood, themes regarding the importance of self-determinism and inner peace, which help demonstrate one of the most illustrious themes in coming of age: the wisdom of children.

But how can children be wise, Eli? Good question. The only wise thing I could tell you as a youngling would be to avoid girls and, in turn, the scourge of cooties. I kid (pun definitely intended). Kids seem to have a mind that while not fully abstracted is certainly adept to understanding certain moral truths. In The Iron Giant, our praise goes to nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes. When the boy’s alliterative name is found at the scene of an investigation, Hogarth is put under the eyes of evil government agent Kent Mansley.

Through the course of the film, Hogarth develops a friendship with the eponymous Iron Giant. In a sense, the giant is a towering and metallic Baby Huey — clumsy and naive. The giant’s coming of age results directly from the wisdom Hogarth imparts to it. Above all else, the message that “You are who you choose to be” is what the giant learns from Hogarth. His philosophy helps the giant attain his greatest feat: saving an entire town from a nuclear holocaust through self-destruction. The giant’s final wish is to be “Superman.”

Growing up we don’t often find ourselves in movie moments like this, where all of our beliefs and desires can be reduced to one defining action. Aging is a process in which these ideas of self constantly evolve. Childhood provides a grain of salt to the idea that we may be completely different when we reach maturity. For example, it’s a pretty widely-held truth that murder is wrong. Most people know this at all stages in life. So the challenge then is determining what other moral truths are worth holding on to.

It may be more than you think. If we can accredit children to having a degree of wisdom, then we can subsequently agree that it may be in our benefit to follow beliefs that we held to be true in childhood. American culture highly values the giant’s sacrifice because it simultaneously puts the individual before and behind the good of the group. Before in the sense that it was sacrificing one for the whole. Behind in that it represented the giant’s self-fulfillment to exhibit superhero qualities.

Striking this balance in any age would be a remarkable accomplishment. It requires a conscious desire to do good by self and others. Often, and especially in adolescence, we trade one for another. Our self-serving actions can come to be detrimental to others. Alternately, we may help someone for the wrong reasons, something that does not go far to improving self-esteem. Ultimately, we have to truly ask ourselves who we want to be. Guess when these feelings are sharpest.

Failing to answer this question is surprisingly easy. Loosey goosey answers fall to the wayside quickly. Are you worried yet? You should be. Don’t worry, you’ve got a paranoid, anxious and self-deprecating 18 year old talking you through the process. But maybe I find that giving myself those labels helps me determine what I want for myself. Looking at yourself honestly is a great way of determining faults and ways to change. Humor is always welcome; I for one could not get by if I did not have daily har-hars at my own expense.

We have not extrapolated ideas too far from that core message of The Iron Giant. The argument for honest self introspection is associative — drawn from the movie and put into an age appropriate context. What we can learn from a clinking assemblage of nuts and bolts is truly remarkable, and a testament to tender writing and direction. It would be remiss for me to not close with a joke. So, in good form: What would one call an iron cat? A Fe-line.

To congratulate ELI FLESCH on that indubitably incredible pun, you can reach him at ekflesch@ucdavis.net or tweet him @eliflesch.

 

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