Before animation director Brad Bird moved to Pixar and led them through the making of two of their most mature films, “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”, he was brought into the animation department at Warner Brothers Pictures to direct a film version of the 1960’s novel “The Iron Giant”. Bird was given more creative control than is usually given on an animated film, but because of this, he had the ability to tell a much bolder, much more complex, and even much more personal story than many similar films had in the past. Almost fifteen years after its release, “The Iron Giant” is seen not only as a modern masterpiece of animation, but also as an incredible allegory to the sacrifice of Jesus (whether Bird and his team intended to show it or not).
In the film, young Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) lives with his widowed mother (Jennifer Aniston) in 1957 Rockwell, Maine, where the threat of nuclear war and the space race against Russia loom over the country. One day, Hogarth discovers an area in the forest where something has crash-landed (which we see at the very beginning of the film). He finds there a fifty-foot-tall live robot (Vin Diesel) stuck in power cables. Hogarth gets him out, and the robot follows him to his house.
Of course, there are several “shenanigans” that take place as this robot tries to discover this new world. In one scene, he eats some railroad tracks near the house but is too late in putting them back before a train comes. The train crashes into his head, and Hogarth hides him for a time in the barn at his house. Later, the robot repairs its “wound”, and Hogarth brings him some comic books to read. The robot enjoys reading “Superman” comics, but not a comic book he finds about an evil robot. Eventually, Hogarth talks to him about the side of him that isn’t very nice.
HOGARTH: It's bad to kill. Guns kill. And you don't have to be a gun. You are what you choose to be. You choose.
Meanwhile, Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), a government agent, investigates the recent crash-landing, for fear of a foreign attack—or worse, an alien invasion—and eventually starts to suspect young Hogarth of hiding something from him. But with the help of local metal artist Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick, Jr.), he is able to hide the robot from Mansley and lieutenant general Guy Rogard (John Mahoney). Eventually, however, after a series of events, the robot goes into his “battle mode” and takes off for town. Hogarth and Dean chase after him.
Soon, the robot is fighting against the military, shooting weapons at them that are far superior to theirs. (He is prompted to fight after he finds Hogarth unconscious, presumably dead to him, after an explosion.) Soon, a frenzied Mansley launches a missile from space that is programmed to fire straight at the robot. However, he doesn’t remember that since the robot is standing right there in Rockwell, the missile is about to head straight for them. (Gee, when you put it like that, the whole situation seems kind of silly. Trust me; in the film, it’s not.)
Hogarth, his family and friends, and everyone else in the town is realizing that they are about to be blown to bits when the robot kneels to talk to Hogarth:
IRON GIANT: I fix.
IRON GIANT: Hogarth. I go. You stay. No following.
HOGARTH: I love you.
The giant takes off, intercepts the missile, and explodes in the sky. It’s very sad, especially after seeing Hogarth and the robot interact in such a friendly way. But later on, Dean builds a statue in Rockwell in the robot’s memory, as meanwhile in Iceland, pieces of the robot that have landed there are starting to reunite as the robot repairs itself.
There’s no sequel, of course; Warner Bros. didn’t make enough money from this film to do that. But I’m glad, because on its own, “The Iron Giant” is a very powerful film, certainly as a film presumably aimed at kids and their families. I have no idea what Brad Bird’s “religious affiliation” might be, but he and his team tell this story well as a huge allegory for Christ and his sacrifice.
For example, the otherworldly robot crash-lands suddenly in a seemingly normal town of Rockwell, Maine, and the only person who really tries to take care of it (at first) is a boy, who should know better than to even believe in such things existing. Eventually, the world wants this robot gone, and the Iron Giant ends up sacrificing himself to save the lives of his friends—and even, to an extent, his enemies. He even, as we see at the very end, has the ability to come back to life. How can this not relate to Jesus even a little bit? It’s honestly pretty cool to watch.
But just like people did in Jesus’ day, there were still many who doubted the Iron Giant’s existence or power. There’s a line in the film spoken by Mansley saying something like, “Nothing happens in Rockwell.” And in John 1, one of Jesus’ future disciples says a similar line:
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” (1:45-50)
And just as Hogarth was amazed by what the Iron Giant was capable, Jesus’ followers, and all of us, were and are amazed by the miracles He performed and the work He still does in our lives today. I pray that we would remember that as we go about our lives, as tough and trying as they may be—we would remember how mighty our Lord is.