I'm not a cryer.

I'm not saying that to earn macho points. It's just me. On rare occasions of extreme, personal emotional distress, I have been known to unleash the floodgates. I sniffled uncontrollably through the fifteen minutes before my wedding, for example.

When it comes to movies and TV shows, I don't really cry. I've only teared up on a handful of occasions. One was the final episode of season five of "Buffy." Another is a perennial: Spock's death scene in "The Wrath of Khan."

Then there's the final moments of one of animation's great underrated classics, "The Iron Giant." I won't tell you exactly what part of that movie makes me cry like a baby, because if you haven't seen this film, you must see it NOW. I'll only tell you that it's powerful, touching, and impossibly human--just like the movie itself.

"The Iron Giant" is based on a novel by British author Ted Hughes. It tells the story of Hogarth, a small boy in a rural Maine town in 1958, who suddenly finds a giant iron robot in his life. The robot is a killing machine from another planet, but he seems gentle enough--he mostly wants to hang out and eat metal. As can be expected, Hogarth's not the only one who knows about the Giant's presence on Earth, and when the U.S. military decides to get involved, the Iron Giant must choose between his newfound gentler side or his programming as an unstoppable force of war.

Sounds like pretty heavy stuff, doesn't it? Then you won't be at all surprised to learn that Brad Bird, the writer and director of "The Incredibles," also wrote and directed this film, which is his first full-length animated feature. The two films share an unwillingness to settle for the easy way out. Bird excels at consistently refusing to be content with making an animated picture that's just fun for kids. Both "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles" are layered, textured pieces that an entire family can enjoy in equal measure.

Consider the fate of the titular Giant. He's a being from beyond dropped on our planet, he seems innocent enough, he does cute things--E.T. with a tin fetish, right? Wrong--or at least, that's not the whole story. The Giant is a being created to destroy, yet when he crash-lands on Earth, his programming goes haywire, and he becomes a gentler soul. When attacked by the military, his original design comes to the fore, and he faces a choice: Is he destined to destroy, or can he combat his nature and become someone different? In the end, he decides he is not a gun--he is not a creation for war, but a creation for peace. That's the genesis of the heart-ripping, tear-jerking moment that always makes me blubber, and so there I will stop for the moment, because it's not a moment that would ever be spoiled by me.

There's a nature versus nurture question packed into "The Iron Giant," and there's a strong anti-war message as well, as we see this creation forced to struggle with his own nature by the closed-mindedness of humanity. We are all too ready to destroy that which we do not understand; in fact, we're so willing to do it that it's been a hallmark of genre filmmaking since "King Kong." Put something astonishing in our midst, and it's a safe bet we'll try to cut it open to see how it works. If we can't do that, we'll blow it up.

As with all things great in sci-fi, "The Iron Giant" teaches us something about ourselves. We can somehow see echoes of humanity in this adorably strange robotic creation, sprung whole from the brain of Brad Bird, cobbled together from pieces of fifties' B movies and the classic Fleischer Superman cartoons. By watching this story of a Iron Giant struggling with his own self-awareness, we gain self-awareness ourselves. That's something admirable for any film to achieve, let alone an animated feature from a first-time director.

It helps that this film has a dynamic, unique look and feel all its own. There's a vibrancy and life to its visuals and music that effortlessly evokes the brightness of that particular era in history. The Iron Giant himself is a masterpiece of character design, in the same way that R2D2 was before him. He's an inanimate object breathing with life, a creation of steel and gears that effortlessly earns the distinction of "cute" from all who see him. If there were justice in this world, every kid in America would have a stuffed Iron Giant sleeping with him at night.

Alas, there is no justice in this world, and thus, Warner Brothers allowed "The Iron Giant" to die a quick death at theaters. The lack of support for this film upon its initial release in the summer of 1999 will likely always remain a sore subject for geeks, as this is exactly the sort of smart, moving family film that should have found an audience in a summer movie season. Instead, it languished, destined by the cruel fates of a careless studio to live on as a "cult" hit and never a blockbuster. (Thankfully, Brad Bird has found greener pastures at Pixar, where his latest film recieved an unstoppable promotional budget in direct relation to its brilliance.)

Nowadays, Warner Brothers is trying to make up for past sins, and so you have a couple of options if you're ready to do what you MUST do if you care about ANYTHING at ALL and SEE this terrific film. Cartoon Network runs a yearly marathon of the movie over Thanksgiving weekend, showing it over and over for twenty-four hours straight. It's AOL/Time Warner's grandest gesture to find this film an audience at all costs, and it's admirable.

If you can't make a 24-hour viewing marathon somehow fit into your busy turkey schedule, then a new special edition DVD of "The Iron Giant" hit stores this week, featuring a commentary track by Brad Bird and others, new featurettes, and deleted scenes. It's not quite the overwhelming two-disc SE that a title of this greatness deserves, but it's better than nothing. It's also reasonably priced; Target had it for just $14.99, and you can surely do a bit better by clicking the handy Amazon link below and dropping a few bucks into Jim Hill's worthy coffers.

Anyone reading this site has probably already seen and loved "The Incredibles." There's no better film to follow that up with than Brad Bird's first masterpiece, "The Iron Giant." It's got the same mix of heart, smarts and depth that made the current CG superhero blockbuster such a critical darling, and even better, it's got a supercool ultracute gigantic robot. You can't beat that.


Matt Springer has been writing professionally about genre entertainment for the past five years and has worked full-time for such publications as the Official Buffy the Vampire Slayer Magazine, Cinescape, and Total Movie. He co-edits the genre criticism website Entertainment Geekly (http://www.entertainment-geekly.com). His first novel, Unconventional, is the tale of three geeks who spend a life-altering weekend at a convention; buy it online at South Side Press (http://www.southsidepress.net). He's currently working to become a sitcom writer.