Movies of my Yesterdays: The Iron Giant

I dimly remember actually seeing this movie in the theater, but for whatever reason, what sticks with me more is getting it for Christmas, in a set with a toy figure (example photo, not mine) that was both exciting and yet I don’t think I ever actually played with. I seem to associate the story with winter scenes as well, even though I know there are summer scenes. I guess it takes place over a longer period of time than I thought.

I do recall that seeing the movie in the theater was at least one of the first times I allowed myself to cry at a movie (in a dark theater). The emotion that this movie draws out of celluloid is one of the main reasons that it’s endured as a modern classic and stands out against the more bland landscape of contemporaries that, unlike the perennial vintage cinema, we can still remember. In the nine(!) years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve covered many movies from that year. Only a few of them come close to the legacy The Iron Giant immediately cemented.

The Iron Giant. Warner Bros. 1999.

Hogarth, a boy in advanced classes with an excitable imagination outside of small town Rockwell, Maine, goes investigating his missing TV antenna and comes across a 50-foot tall robot from space! The giant robot, which eats metal, tries to eat a power station transformer, and gets tangled up in power lines, and Hogarth rescues him by pulling the shutoff switch. As Hogarth investigates, the giant befriends him, and they quickly form a secret partnership with junkyard artist Dean for the use of his scrap metal so the giant won’t go hungry. But the reports of strange sightings draw government agent Kent Mansley, a cold war G-man who sees Soviet threats in anything he doesn’t understand. Kent quickly susses out that Hogarth isn’t telling all he knows, and if he can get proof that there’s a dangerous weapon in Rockwell, he’ll finally get the respect he thinks he deserves.

This might not be the first time I’ve watched the movie since that VHS, but it’s the first time I’ve really noticed how much care was put into the art for this movie. I’m not sure I’ve seen better cel-shaded CGI before, but the Giant, Sputnik, and the missile are CG renders blended in so well it’s easy to forget they’re technically a different medium, and if they used it for other things, I couldn’t even tell or it wasn’t major enough to remember. However, the CGI was something I was aware of years ago. This time, I was also looking at the traditional animation, and especially the lovingly-created backgrounds. I think I’ve seen this movie called a love letter to traditional animated movies in an era where everyone wanted to make the next Toy Story, and I got it then, but I see it for myself now. As well, the music is quite evocative of cartoon features of a different age, and sometimes comes very close to evoking Looney Tunes incidental music.

My first instinct was to say that the messages of the movie are what makes it resonate, but there’ve been a lot of bad and forgettable movies with messages of “friendship is good, guns are bad, be yourself, help others, your past doesn’t define you”. What makes it effective is the execution. This story is not just character driven, but the characters express real emotion and profound thoughts that manage to all align to create a package of concentrated Feelings. It’s no wonder Pixar incorporated Brad Bird into their inner circle of creatives after this.

As the 1950s setting evokes a kind of nostalgia for a lost age of childhood, the movie is itself nostalgia for a generation, as it now approaches 20 years since its release. I’m sure that there are professional animators now who were inspired by this opus, and hopefully many of them are actually getting to do something close enough to that to satisfy them, as the market has moved away from traditional animation with any real budget for artistic flair. Being an inspiration is probably the highest honor a work of art can aspire to, and this is certainly one that has inspired careers as well as daily lives.

Advertisements

Blade

Blade. New Line Cinema 1998.

Before watching the movie:

I have no familiarity with the Marvel comics this is based on. For all I know, this movie was made because New Line had bought a package of cheap comics properties to turn a fast profit on. I don’t like to be so dismissive, but Blade is one of the most prominent notably black superheroes I can think of who aren’t carrying a legacy mantle, and I wouldn’t know that the book exists without this movie that exemplifies an era of moviemaking where “based on a comic book” was something to hide.

Lacking any of the brand recognition and shared continuity that makes comic book stories enticing now, this is essentially sold on the strength of Wesley Snipes slaying vampires with martial arts for two hours. Which is exciting enough if you’re into that sort of thing.

After watching the movie:

Thirty years ago, a baby was born to a woman dying of a vampire bite. Now, Blade is a Daywalker, a being without the vulnerabilities of vampires, but with many of the advantages, including super strength and speed and decreased aging. Blade and his partner Whistler save Dr. Karen Jenson from a vampire that eluded Blade’s assault on a vampire-owned rave, and they introduce Karen to the secret war to free human society from the elite order of vampires that secretly rule. As Blade fights vampire activity, a vampire named Frost manages to translate one of the ancient texts of the vampires, unlocking plans for a ceremony to bring about the age of the Blood Gods.

In the time this was made, comic book movies were often trying to be mature and serious while at the same time providing spectacular violence shows. This created a lot of movies that seem afraid to have fun, even as the stunt sequences the plots excuse are really fun and cartoonish. This has some really fun fight scenes, and the plot is pretty cartoonish, but the story and the fights often seem to belong to different movies because of how different they are in tone.

Most of the effects are highly effective. There’s a lot of work with prosthetics and practical creature effects that create convincing looks, and probably a lot of background CG that’s not noticeable. The disintegration of silver-stabbed vampires is really good for the time. The only time I was really taken out of the scene by bad effects was in the finale, with the demonic vampire souls flying around. That might have been partially caused by a frame rate mismatch, like how jarring the ED-209 was in RoboCop.

Even though there have been over 20 more years of superhero movies and Hero’s Journey plots further wearing out their cliches since Blade, the tropes this plot leans on seem particularly lazy. Developments in act one set up developments in act three with a megaphone. At least this movie introduces the character already established and just recaps the origin story, which is a rare approach. 

I have to respect that this was one of the vanguards of the modern rebirth of superhero movies, but it’s not a part of it. The success of movies like Blade and Spawn demonstrated that the market was safe for comic book movies again, but they didn’t do it by revolutionizing or commenting upon the genre, just by playing it straight. Often too straight, but I have to keep in mind how early this was. This is still a fun movie that doesn’t need too much of an excuse to explode some vampires, and that’s really all it had to be.

Movies of My Yesterdays: Meet the Robinsons

I remembered this movie as having come out a little earlier. Spring of course, but I didn’t remember that it was my final spring as a high school student. I do remember that spring and summer being significant to me in a lot of ways that made me feel like I was growing up and defining my own tastes. Placing it in that year, I know that I had a car that was mine to use rather than borrowed when I needed it for the first time. It was a good year for listening to songs on the radio, which is something I rarely chose to do. I think I was making occasional trips to bookstores by myself to browse.

However, this was not a movie I found all on my own. I knew it was coming, I was looking forward to seeing it, but soon after its release, my grandfather wanted to take me to a movie. Looking at what was coming out around that time, I can see that this was pretty much the only option for us.

Meet the Robinsons. Walt Disney Pictures 2007.

Sometimes I talk about movies coming out at the right time for me. Usually that probably just means they were things I’d have liked anyway reaching me at an age when I was old enough to think about it a little more deeply than a child, but still simply enough to easily generate nostalgia for it later. I suspect that’s the case with Tarzan, though it did introduce me to the music of Phil Collins. But I feel like Meet the Robinsons was perfectly suited for my mindset at the time, and considering that I was about to graduate high school, it’s easy to see how a story about a bright kid dropped into a colorful future that turns out to be of his own making might’ve particularly spoken to me.

Lewis, a 12-year old abandoned at an orphanage as a baby, is already an inventor capable of revolutionizing modern science when he sets his mind to it. Still unable to get adopted at his advanced age, he decides to invent a memory scanning machine to help him find the mother who left him years ago. However, at the science fair, Lewis encounters a teen claiming to be from the future, and a mustache twirling saboteur with a sentient bowler hat. In order to get Lewis back on track, Wilbur Robinson takes him to the future to prove that he is a time traveler, and Lewis gets mixed up with Wilbur’s eccentric family. If meeting his mother doesn’t work out, surely Lewis could find a home with the Robinsons.

I still love the fanciful spin on classic futurist design. Robots, another William Joyce-inspired movie, was made in a similar style, but I like the results here better for some reason. The music doesn’t grab me now like it did at the time, both the neo-swing I was very into back then and the 00s Disney boy band songs that did a lot of the work of opening me to modern pop.

I’m always impressed with how well the non-destructive time travel is set up and paid off. The Cornelius loop as well as the orphanage steps and Bowler Hat Guy’s origins are meticulously detailed and make repeat viewings rewarding. It’s so well done that the rewritten timeline begins to seem like an illusion that Cornelius somehow arranged in order to get Lewis set on the right path. After all, Cornelius did invent the evil hat that started it all.

It’s probably never going to be as good as the first and second time I watched it, but Meet The Robinsons will always hold a special place with me for when it came to me, and as long as I like time travel stories, it will stand among the better ones for me.

Brewster’s Millions (1985)

Brewster’s Millions. Silver Pictures 1985.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve already covered the 1945 version of this story, but I knew that eventually I’d come to this one. This is the 7th movie adaptation of the 1902 novel just in English, and at this point it’s surprising that it hasn’t been tried again. The reputation this version has is tepid, and it’s the version people think of when the name comes up (the last version with the same title was made 40 years previous), but it’s clearly a story with staying power, and within the next ten years, every memorable movie from the 80s is going to get remade if it hasn’t already.

Continue reading

The Mighty

The Mighty. Scholastic Productions 1998.

Before watching the movie:

All of the summaries I can see point to the story being about the two boys who form a friendship of outsiders, but Sharon Stone, the sick boy’s mother, seems to be featured even more prominently than it seems like she would just because she’s the biggest name in the cast. I get the sense that she’s the viewpoint character.

The story being around a boy with Morquio Syndrome and his parent puts me in mind of Lorenzo’s Oil, which is all about the parents trying to keep their son alive. It’s also a movie I was shown in high school, and another reason this makes me think of that is because my friend Kellie recently rediscovered it as a movie she was shown in grade school. This post was suggested by Kellie and has input from her. She has agreed that I may limit mentions of how hot she is for Gillian Anderson to two (this one might not count).

Continue reading

Man of La Mancha

Man Of La Mancha. United Artists 1972.

Before watching the movie:

I think this is the way most people have experienced Don Quixote.  I’ve read some of the book, but despite the new translation I was using, the stilted nature of it still sometimes overpowered the comedy, which itself sometimes felt a little too much like “mental illness is funny!” It’s at the same time amazing how modern it feels at over 400 years old and yet how basic the storytelling can be at times, because it’s had 400 years to become part of the way we always tell stories.

But the grandeur of the way Man of La Mancha interprets the book is enticing and accessible. Everyone has heard at least a few bars of “The Impossible Dream”. It’s a classic showtune ballad. The romance is probably more feel-good in this take as well.

Continue reading

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams. Gordon Company 1989.

Before watching the movie:

I’m not sure how this is an inspiring movie about following your dreams and not an inspiring movie about how listening to the voices in your head can work out sometimes, but when I try to anticipate what this movie will be, I think of The Astronaut Farmer with baseball instead of spaceflight. But anyway, family man tears his family apart doing crazy things and then there’s a happy ending. Apparently this time James Earl Jones is involved.

Continue reading