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On Video: Acclaimed 'Giant' will get a second life on video next week

Friday, November 19, 1999

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Time -- and movies -- wait for no man. Or woman. Or child.

"There's a sense with the public they can continue to get around to seeing a movie at the movie theater. They don't realize, especially if people don't go, movies don't last very long at movie theaters," says director Brad Bird.

"And I don't know how many people I've heard say, 'Oh, "Iron Giant," I didn't see it but I heard it was good. I'm going to have to get out there and see that one of these days.' You don't understand, man, if you don't get out there now, it's not going to be there."

And it wasn't. Despite nearly universal praise from critics -- "genuinely playful and superbly executed ... new, arresting, wondrous ... The Iron E.T. of the '90s" -- the box office figures for the movie were disappointing.

But "Iron Giant" will rise again next week, just in time for holiday shoppers. The video and DVD, due in stores Tuesday, are getting a $90 million push from Warner Home Video and its many promotional partners, and that is good news for Bird. The 37-year-old directed the animated movie and wrote the screen story, based on the Ted Hughes book "The Iron Man."

Set in 1957, the movie is about an imaginative 9-year-old boy who befriends a gigantic, gentle robot that falls to Earth. When a government agent arrives to track down the alien invader, young Hogarth learns the meaning of friendship and the machine discovers its humanity.

Vin Diesel gives voice to the robot, while Jennifer Aniston is Hogarth's single mother and Harry Connick Jr. speaks for a beatnik.

"There's a tendency to talk about the messages of the film, and that makes the film sound like it's broccoli and it's good for you," Bird says by phone from Los Angeles. "I prefer to say 'tastes great,' and I just think it's really good entertainment. I think a lot of people who traditionally don't like animation have come up to me and said they really liked it."

So why didn't more people go to the theater when it opened Aug. 6? A late commitment for a release date severely stunted promotion, "and animated films need to have the way paved for them long in advance," Bird suggests.

"Disney specializes in this. They map their dates out a year in advance, and we were very late in getting our release date, and that made it impossible to get tie-ins. The only reason we had toys at all was because this one toy company, called Trendmaster, was willing to commit to making toys without us giving them a release date."

But none of those playthings were tucked into child-size meals at your local fast-food restaurant. However, miniatures are being packaged with the video, so children can play with a plastic robot while they watch the movie.

Parents should be mindful that "Iron Giant" is rated PG for fantasy action and mild language. Asked his recommended minimum age, Bird says, "I think it varies with the individual kid. My littlest one saw it [at age 4] and was fine with it. I would generally not recommend it to kids under age 6 or so."

Bird has long been a fan and practitioner of animation. At age 11, he started animating his first movie, a retelling of "The Tortoise and the Hare" that ended in a five-way tie. By the time he was 14, he had a 15-minute film that ultimately helped to open the Disney doors for him.

A friend of his family knew Disney composer George Bruns, who took young Brad to the Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles where he met some of the legendary animators known as the "nine old men." One of them, Milt Kahl, became his mentor.

"He sort of instilled in me that raw talent is not enough, you have to not quit. He had a reputation of being an amazing draftsman and I would tell him, 'You're the most amazing draftsman,' and he would say he didn't think he was, he just didn't quit as soon as everyone else did.

"That gave me the idea that if you're willing to stay with it, you can elevate yourself beyond your ability almost .... Not ever taking anything for granted, always pushing to do your absolute best" was the lesson learned.

So, what are Bird's thoughts on the state of animation today, given the success of such diverse projects as "The Simpsons" and "Pokémon"?

"I worked on 'Simpsons' and 'King of the Hill,' so I'm very happy with the success of those. Something like 'Pokémon' to me, I mean I'm glad Warner Bros. is making money so they can spend it on better things.

"Admittedly, my kids love the game, had to see the movie and like the cards and all that, but it's just, quite honestly, not very good work. It's like a bunch of TV shows slapped together and pawned off as a movie. So that kind of success is depressing, when you kill yourself to do great work and stay up really late nights to make sure everything's right ..."

But video could make those late nights and 21/2 years of work worthwhile. Like television, which turned "The Wizard of Oz" and "It's a Wonderful Life" into classics, video grants movies second chances.

It's not unusual to have family films, such as "The Land Before Time" or "The Swan Princess" or "Quest for Camelot," be reborn on video, says Dan Capone, vice president of marketing and development for Warner Home Video. And he considers "The Iron Giant" to be "head and shoulders" above those titles in quality and kid appeal.

"The Tuesday before Thanksgiving probably is the best video street date of the entire year. That day to video is what Fourth of July or Memorial Day is to movies," Capone says. "It's a phenomenal date. It's in stores, people see it, Thanksgiving happens, then people are back in stores for the three busiest shopping days of the year."

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