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Brad Bird explains why 'The Iron Giant' bombed at the box office

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Director Brad Bird at the premiere of 'The Iron Giant: Signature Edition' at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
George Pimentel - WIREIMAGE/Getty Images
Director Brad Bird at the premiere of 'The Iron Giant: Signature Edition' at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

A new documentary explores why Brad Bird's 1999 animated feature "The Iron Giant" was a critical darling but a box office bomb.

Today, many kids and grownups alike consider the animated movie “The Iron Giant” a classic — but when it came out in August 1999, it was a box office bomb.

Directed by Brad Bird, who went on to direct “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” for Pixar, the movie was based on a novel by the British poet Ted Hughes. Critics liked it, but when it only made $23 million on a budget of $50 million, it helped nail the coffin on Warner Brothers’ short-lived attempt to compete with Disney in the traditional animation game.

This week, a Blu-ray release of “The Iron Giant” features a new, hour-long documentary about what went into the making of the movie — and what went wrong.

Bird: Back then, the overriding thing was, if you’re doing an animated film, it should be a public domain property, set to music. And our story was not familiar to most audiences, other than in England. And then for us to set it in 1957, and have it deal with things like the Cold War, was definitely not considered the kind of things you do in an animated film. Where is the fairy tale? Where is the magic? And where’s the singing?

In “The Giant’s Dream,” Bird describes how he fell in love with animation watching classic Disney films as a kid. He was hired by Disney’s animation department after college, but that was during their wilderness years of the 1980s, and he wound up leaving in frustration. Bird went on to work as an artist and director on “The Simpsons.

In the late ’90s, Bird finally got his chance to direct a full-length animated film — but not for Disney. It was for Warner Brothers. In the wake of Disney’s juggernaut years, from “The Little Mermaid” through “The Lion King,” the other studios jumped into animation hoping to hit the jackpot. The problem was that they didn’t quite know what they were getting into.

Bird: The movie business at large, it’s nomadic. You know, you assemble your creative team, you make the film, and then the team disbands. Well, in animation it’s so time-intensive, and it’s got a million moving parts, and you really have to build a team, and then you have to hold the team together. So they were trying to follow the Disney model of having a division. But they didn’t realize that Disney took years to build that division.

Bird wanted to go against the Disney grain and make a songless adventure movie about a boy and a robot, that attempts to answer the simple question: “What if a gun had a soul and didn’t want to be a gun?”

He had one-third the budget and half the time of the typical animated feature, and a crew of mostly young and inexperienced animators. When another Warner Brothers animated feature, “Quest for Camelot,” came out and tanked, the studio began looking for the exit sign.

Bird: They spent a lot of money on a lot of not-very-well conceived projects, and they were kind of exiting the stage. And it was cheaper to have us finish our film than to scrap it. So we were finished — but they didn’t really have any expectations for us. So the great thing when we were making it was that, as long as we produced it efficiently, they left us alone. And the terrible thing about it is that when it came time to come out, they [laughing] kind of left us alone.

“The Giant’s Dream” explores this story in great detail, using new interviews with several alumni from “The Iron Giant” and home movie footage of story meetings. The documentary was directed by Anthony Giacchino, younger brother of composer Michael Giacchino, who has scored all of Bird’s films since “The Incredibles.” Anthony is a historical documentarian, and he applied those chops to examine how a good movie like “The Iron Giant” could go bust.

Giacchino: It did incredibly well with test audiences, and Warner Brothers said, ‘Hey, maybe we should hold off and market this properly?’ And the filmmakers were concerned that if they sort of delayed a year, that Warner Brothers would never release it. They certainly didn’t give it the attention all the way through that they may have. I mean, they had about four months to market the film. Brad told me, you know, ‘Warner’s said we should have waited. I said no. They listened to me.’ And he said, ‘They probably shouldn’t have listened to me.’

Even though the movie lost at the box office in ’99, it helped launch Brad Bird’s Oscar-winning career and the careers of several animators — and the film itself eventually found a passionate audience.

Bird: The movie business is very strange. It’s kind of a dream language, and it’s more about what feels right. I can’t tell you how much bogus knowledge I’ve been given, you know, with absolute confidence, by people who were 100 percent wrong [laughs]. I think you just have to kind of connect with your own emotions and why you enjoy the experience of going to the movies, and take it from there.

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