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"Iron Giant' may spark a few recoils

The Iron Giant is going to surprise some moviegoers, especially card-carrying members of the National Rifle Association.

The title character of Brad Bird's animated film is a 50-foot robot from outer space who lands on Earth and befriends a young boy named Hogarth Hughes in 1957. On the surface, The Iron Giant resembles old sci-fi movies that are satirized on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Underneath, there is a subtle anti-gun message that NRA President Charlton Heston is certain to scoff at publicly any day now.

Hogarth's metallic pal was created as a weapon. Neither realize this until after the boy has warned the robot that guns kill and killing is wrong. This creates emotional conflict in the heroes and the audience when the robot reflexively protects himself from U.S. Army tanks by using death rays and heavy artillery.

Firearms become a metaphor for the worst of human and alien instincts. One of the most moving moments in the film occurs when Hogarth subdues the robot by assuring him "You are not a gun," like a therapist soothing a patient's guilt. The Iron Giant doesn't preach that everyone should lay down their guns, but it may make viewers wonder why we pick them up in the first place.

During a recent telephone interview, Bird said that he hadn't heard any feedback from the NRA. He did offer a sneak preview of how he'll respond if NRA members complain.

"Perceiving this movie as only dealing with guns is misreading the movie," he said. "I intended it to be more of a look at how we deal with the darker sides of our nature.

"If you want to be metaphorical about it, you could say that we are all guns. Our brains give us the power to destroy things far beyond our immediate sphere of influence. Whether or not we choose to act on those darker sides of ourselves is what defines who we are."

It remains to be seen if anyone is offended by Bird's equation of firearms and evil. It's hard to imagine that anyone would argue against the pacifist underpinnings of The Iron Giant. It's a movie that begs us to stop hurting each other. Like any good fable, parallels can be drawn between the movie and current events. It's tough to avoid thinking of recent, violent tragedies in Littleton and Atlanta while watching this drama unfold.

"A lot of people have mentioned how this movie relates to these terrible events," Bird said. "We didn't know when we were making the film that anything like that was going to happen. We were dealing with stuff that people have dealt with as long as they've walked the earth; living with our bad instincts and not letting them take us over."

Add the film's themes of mortality, Sputnik-era paranoia and single motherhood, and The Iron Giant becomes a rare, daring step in animation history. This is the kind of high-risk animated feature that Disney and DreamWorks don't have the courage to attempt. Warner Bros., the studio that subjected audiences to such animated flops as The King and I and Quest for Camelot, wasn't sure it wanted to try, either.

"Every single thing about this film that is different was questioned at some point by someone at Warner Bros: Why not do a musical? Why is it set in the 1950s? Why this, why that? If I gave a good answer, (studio executives) were willing to sit back and say okay, go ahead.

"We had a much tighter budget than our friends at Disney and DreamWorks, and we had about half the time that those guys have. But we had an immense amount of elbow room, generously granted by Warner Bros."

One look at Bird's resume _ including contributions to The Simpsons, King of the Hill and The Critic _ should have indicated that The Iron Giant wouldn't be a typical 'toon. Bird based his script on the novel The Iron Man by the late British poet laureate Ted Hughes, and Pete Townshend's rock 'n' roll concept album of the same name. Bird changed the book's location and era, dropped Townshend's music and started bucking animation convention.

"My experience has always been that if you're going to do great animation, you have to do stories that have been done a hundred times before _ preferably with five Broadway songs and annoying sidekicks," he said.

"If you wanted to do something different with the material, that's fine, but it had better be done tomorrow and don't spend much money. Hollywood is not the most forward-thinking place on Earth. It all comes down to dollars and cents for a lot of people.

"Other people are in it because they love the movies and they love dreamers. That contingent was very generous to this movie. There are plenty of jerks for every person who's valuable in Hollywood. If you can connect with some of the good ones, stay close. That's who you end up making films with."

TRICKY DICK _ What did the producers of Dick know about comedy and when did they know it? This alleged comedy about two teenagers who solve the Watergate scandal opened Wednesday and received a D in a Times review.

There's nothing wrong with Dick that a few dozen jokes couldn't cure. The premise has merit. Dan Hedaya does a passable impression of Richard Nixon, even without a prosthetic nose. All the president's men and women are capably caricatured by Saturday Night Live refugees. Two fine young actors, Kirsten Dunst (Drop Dead Gorgeous) and Michelle Williams (TV's Dawson's Creek), make air-headed naivete seem fairly charming.

Yet, director and co-writer Andrew Fleming straddles the fence between those who remember Watergate and those who don't, and neither side laughs much. Anyone who lived through Watergate has seen these lampoons before. The youth market had better brush up on U.S. history to understand why anything here was supposed to be funny. Good thing there are some marijuana references and lewd remarks about Nixon's nickname, or else we could have heard crickets chirping at a sneak preview.

Don't see Dick.