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A gentle "Giant'

Perhaps because it is not from Disney, a wonderfully realized story unfolds in the telling of The Iron Giant. Like Babe, this is a story for all.

The animation industry has outsmarted itself in recent years, using digital computers to tell the same old stories we've seen before. The Iron Giant is a glorious reminder that a few dozen well-chosen words are worth a thousand pristine pictures.

The Iron Giant doesn't evade new technology, which makes animated films easier and cheaper to produce than old hand-drawn methods. But it uses computer imaging to create a nostalgic atmosphere beyond the film's 1957 setting. Writer-director Brad Bird, a contributor to some of the best animated TV series of the '90s, revisits the time in his script and the genre's roots in his approach.

Bird's movie looks like one of those vintage two-dimensional adventures that were called cartoons before Disney got snooty and started making "animated films." The effect is a perfect fit for such an old-fashioned tale of friendship, loyalty and personal growth.

If you want to feel like an amusement park participant, there's always Tarzan. If you'd prefer feeling choked up by a deeply emotional story, The Iron Giant is an unusual blessing from an unlikely source.

Warner Bros., not the Mouse House, is responsible for the best family entertainment to be found in theaters this summer. This is family entertainment in the best sense of that term, a movie that reaches for children and teenagers instead of stooping down to them, one that adults can cherish for its challenge to their movie needs. Like Babe, this film's appeal spans generations, and so should its longevity.

On the surface, The Iron Giant resembles the science fiction movies of the Sputnik era that young Hogarth Hughes (voice by Eli Marienthal) stays up too late to watch on television. Hogarth's working mother Annie (Jennifer Aniston) raises him alone; we never know what happened to his father, but a framed photo offers a clue.

One night, Hogarth sneaks out to investigate an old sailor's report of something huge that crashed into the ocean and came ashore. Hogarth is convinced that it's a space invader.

He's right. Hogarth discovers a 50-foot robot that eats metal and tramples trees. The boy is frightened, but courageous enough to save the giant from deadly electrical power lines. The boy and the metal man begin to bond. Hogarth starts teaching this childish mammoth simple words and complex feelings. When hunters kill a deer nearby, the giant learns that guns kill, killing is bad, but death isn't an ending if you have a good soul.

At that point, The Iron Giant smartly moves farther from the Disney animation orbit. Death has always been a tool for sympathy to Disney; the demises of Bambi's mom and Simba's dad were tragedies important primarily to the heroes and the plot. Bird's script makes the unavoidable issue of mortality as universal as it deserves, straightforward, yet comforting. Lessons learned here last for everyone's lifetime.

The movie's emotional pull doesn't end there. A simple game unleashes a hidden side of the robot. He was built to be a weapon, no different from the guns that his friend taught him are bad. The conflicts that result from this self-discovery, especially when the U.S. Army gets involved, lead The Iron Giant into daring territory for a cartoon.

Daring, but never offensive, except possibly to firearms advocates. The word "hell" pops into a couple of conversations. Battle violence is loud, without a casualty in sight. Any child old enough for the movies can safely enjoy The Iron Giant. Bird keeps the drama simple and the messages clear, leading to a conclusion that will leave plenty of moviegoers crying.

This movie is anything but depressing, though. Bird's understated wit, sharpened with experience on The Simpsons and King of the Hill, is obvious throughout. Hogarth's hometown is named Rockwell, and it would fit snugly into a painting by its folksy namesake artist. When Hogarth needs a grown-up hand, it's a hep-cat beatnik named Dean (Harry Connick Jr.) who helps. A few bathroom gags are tossed in for contemporary tastes, and the giant's juvenile attitude is good for some laughs.

Bird adds small embellishments to the surroundings that adults can appreciate, like tiny cathode lines on a black-and-white TV set, or a sly duck-and-cover educational film that notes paranoia created by The Bomb. The Iron Giant is closely attuned with the period it depicts, while remaining aware of parallels with today's society. The film's ultimate moral, that we are who we choose to be, isn't limited by time or circumstance.

Fans of Japanese anime _ a style The Iron Giant slightly resembles _ may wonder what the big deal is all about. Anime has addressed even deeper topics of post-war desperation and nuclear fears, and crafted childhood fantasies to rival Hogarth's. That isn't the American style engraved by Disney and mimicked by everybody else. The Iron Giant provides a small taste of what we're missing, and what we can live without now and then.

There are no cutesy-pie animal sidekicks. No plot-stopping Broadway show tunes. No villains twirling moustaches and plummeting to justice, or sugary endings to ensure smiles all the way to the toy store. The Iron Giant is what it chooses to be, and that's wonderful.


The Iron Giant

Grade: A

Director: Brad Bird

Cast: Voices of Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Christopher McDonald, Vin Diesel

Screenplay: Brad Bird, based on the book and play by Ted Hughes and the musical by Pete Townshend

Rating: PG; violence, mild profanity

Running time: 86 min.