The Perfect Setup: The Iron Giants’ Three Scene One-Two

Going to the movies can be a jarring experience. Sitting in a darkened room with numerous strangers who just can’t seem to open their bag of Sour Patch Kids before the movie starts, when, suddenly, right in the middle of trying to figure out who voiced the baby in the TV version of Look Who’s Talking (NOTY ZANDA), you’re transported to a different world. But part of staying in that world is establishing it.

As far as movies go, Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant gets pretty much everything right. From the wonderful animation to the lively voices of the cast, the movie is as close to perfect as these things get. And its right moves start from a very fine place to start: the beginning. 

The opening three scenes of The Iron Giant build a world based on character, plot, and setting, revealing who our main characters are, what kind of world they live in, and what sorts of lessons should they learn. It’s mission to get a boy and a giant robot to become friends comes together seamlessly and, more importantly, logically, like a puzzle that clicks together.

Scene one: Enter the Giant

A meteor plummets towards Earth. Meanwhile, off the coast of Maine, a sailor (voiced by the immortal M. Emmet Walsh) weathers a violent storm. Looking for any sign of salvation, he spots the light house to guide him home, but his relief turns to fear when the single bright light of the beacon turns into the two bright eyes of the Iron Giant, who destroys the ship—or so it seems. The sailor awakes on shore, saved but driven slightly mad by the inexplicable event. The end result, we meet a new, potentially dangerous character, the giant, that the world does not understand.

Scene two: Hello, Hogarth!

It’s a beautiful day in 1960s Maine. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and Sputnik is circling the globe creating widespread across the continental United States. A young boy, Hogarth, zooms down the road (like a certain meteor) towards the diner where his mother waits tables. He excitedly tells her about his new friend, a squirrel he hopes to bring home and raise. His mother asks him if he remembers the last squirrel he brought home, which presumably destroyed their house. As the scene continues, Hogarth overhears a sailor telling of the visitor from the sea and joins a local beatnik in defending the sailor when the locals call him a crazy drunk.

In the end, Bird establishes Hogarth as a caring and adventurous young boy. They way interacts with his mother and how she interacts with him reveals a hard but loving family life, while his relationship with new pets leave him open to meet the giant. Bird brings the whole world together by including the sailor, who introduces the giant to Hogarth.

Scene three: Hogarth Rescues The Giant

That night, Hogarth, alone because his mother picks up a late shift, sees an electrical storm on the horizon. Curious, he rushes to the disturbance where he encounters the giant munching on some electrical cables. The giant eats the wrong cable, which then electrocute him. Leaving it up to Hogarth to save him.

Iron Giant brings its two characters together like a math eqaution—scene one plus scene two equals scene three. The giant comes to a world that doesn’t understand him, a world where no one understands Hogarth either. These characters need each other.

To establish the Giant’s character, Bird uses the confusion of the storm and the ambiguity of his interaction to create a character that may be good or evil. Conversely, when introducing Hogarth, he introduces a character out of step with the world. He wants to care for wild animals and believe the world’s craziest stories. He is open-minded and big-hearted. And by placing the two scenes one after the other, Bird establishes the need for convergence in scene three. To keep the plot moving in a cathartic and entertaining way, Bird brings the stories together in scene three, where he puts their previous characteristics to the test. The Giant establishes itself as a misunderstood being, and Hogarth finds an outlet for his kindness.

These three scenes establish a perfect setup for act one and the rest of the film. They build character based on their surroundings and what happens in the world, and these three sings are the sum of compelling stories and great movies.

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