It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Imagine "E.T." as a towering metal man, and you have some of the appeal of "The Iron Giant," an enchanting animated feature about a boy who makes friends with a robot from outer space. The giant crash-lands on a 1957 night when America is peering up at the speck of Sputnik in the sky, and munches his way through a Maine village, eating TV antennas and cars, until he finds a power plant. That's where young Hogarth Hughes finds him.
Hogarth is a 9-year-old who lives with his single mom (Jennifer Aniston) and dreams of having a pet. She says they make too much of a mess around the house, little dreaming what a 100-foot robot can get up to. One night Hogarth discovers their TV antenna is missing and follows the Iron Giant's trail to the power plant, where he saves the robot from electrocution after it chomps on some live wires. That makes the giant his friend forever, and now all Hogarth has to do is keep the robot a secret from his mom and the federal government.
"The Iron Giant" is still another example of the freedom that filmmakers find in animation: This would have been a $100 million live-action special-effects movie, but it was made for a fraction of that cost because the metal man is drawn, not constructed. And here is a family movie with a message: a Cold War parable in which the Iron Giant learns from a little boy that he is not doomed to be a weapon because "you are what you choose to be." The movie is set in the 1950s because that's the decade when science fiction seemed most preoccupied with nuclear holocaust and invaders from outer space. It includes a hilarious cartoon version of the alarming "Duck and Cover" educational film, in which kids were advised to seek shelter from H-bombs by hiding under their desks. And the villain is a Cold Warrior named Kent Mansley (voice by Christopher McDonald), a G-man who of course sees the Iron Giant as a subversive plot and wants to blast it to pieces.
That political parable is buried beneath a lot of surface charm; the film's appeal comes from its "E.T."-type story about a boy trying to hide an alien from his mom. The Iron Giant is understandably too big to conceal in the closet, but there's a funny sequence where Hogarth brings the creature's hand into the house, and it scampers around like a disobedient dog.