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Big concepts for little people

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In a world where camouflage is fashion, it’s hard trying to explain to a seven-year-old boy about why war is wrong.

In the past, humans learned right and wrong from stories we told. I imagine we first grunted about the travesty of war around smoky cave fires; we later learned how to treat our fellow humans through verses in holy books; and we sat on the ground at Globe Theatre learning still more about the nature of human violence in iambic pentameter. Whether in the oral, the epistolary or theatrical tradition, all of these stories had a common goal: to make us consider our beliefs. Today, entertainment is designed to provoke immediate visceral response, storytelling is secondary.

That’s why we should be glad people like Geoff Pross want to show movies like The Iron Giant at the Pemberton Community Centre. It’s a miracle that a subtle, subversive, amusing entertainment like this can emerge from the homogenized miasma of popular culture. Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to share this extremely under-rated and under-viewed movie with a handful of kids and their grownups at the community centre, part of a regular fundraising event for the Pemberton Youth Society.

The story of how eight-year-old Hogarth Hughes befriends, and ultimately fights to save, a 100-foot metal robot from outer space is exciting, compelling and emotionally-fulfilling in its approach. Equal parts Sci-Fi, thriller and creature feature; both the comedy and drama are genuine. Moving without being sentimental, the end reduces most viewers to a pair of misty eyes and leaves them with a memorable story packed full of ideas that mainstream, live-action films are just too scared to examine.

Among those ideas: the military is ridiculous, guns kill (enforced in the dialogue at least four times), loss hurts, death is forever — usually — and hating someone because you don’t understand them is always wrong and can result in violence. Heady stuff for the under-12 set, but judging from the crowd at the community centre to watch the movie last Saturday night, the kids got it. Even the little ones. In fact, Number Two has been watching the movie annually since he was a four-year-old. (At the end, I cry, he consoles me.)

Adults will enjoy The Iron Giant’s wry look at 1950s McCarthyism with its fear of reds under beds, fear of the public knowing too much and fear of difference.

Hogarth Hughes is an emotionally complex, likeable protagonist who had his genesis in the 1968 children’s story The Iron Man , by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. Before acquiring the prestigious post in 1984, Hughes was best known as the husband of confessional poet Sylvia Plath. The iconic Plath committed suicide in 1963. Hughes wrote the book to explain the ideas of love and loss to his six-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter. Despite its heavy pedigree, the resulting film is a joyous celebration of friendship and the realization of what should be universal truths.

The movie’s setting handily illustrates the absurdity of the fear that gripped 1950s America. While Sputnik orbits the globe and The Cold War reaches its icy zenith, Hogarth Hughes is a child of his times. Armed with a pellet gun and anti-communist propaganda comic books he has unknowingly bought into that McCarthy-era hysteria that was disguised as patriotism. He might still be in primary school, but he knows having a red under your bed is a problem. It’s only when he encounters and develops a relationship with the 100-foot metal man from outer space does his perspective begin to change. He starts to realize the importance of freewill and how people — and 100-foot robots — have choice. Live freely. Alternatively, live with fear — fear that can have dreadful consequences.

Having put his time in on such iconic animated TV programs as The Simpsons and The Critic , The Iron Giant was director Brad Bird’s feature film debut. (He went on to direct and write the spectacular The Incredibles , double duties he also undertook on the highly anticipated Ratatouille — which looks at how a young rat overcomes family conflict and systemic prejudice to fulfill his dream of becoming a chef.

Films like The Iron Giant and risk-taking filmmakers like Brad Bird help me to explain and support our family’s beliefs about war and violence in ways that Number Two can understand.

I don’t watch TV news with my seven-year-old, but CBC radio is on in the mornings when he comes in for a snuggle and he hears about car bombing, death tolls and troops deploying. Making sure topics like the war are up for discussion will hopefully result in enduring lessons that violence in any form is not acceptable. Hopefully, it’s a lesson he will take out into the world.

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