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A Sleeping 'Giant' : Enthusiastic screening audiences and hot Internet buzz have awakened Warners to the potential for its modestly budgeted animated feature, 'The Iron Giant,' in this summer's box-office jungle.

April 26, 1999|ROBERT W. WELKOS and CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When it comes to the summer's animated films, Disney's "Tarzan" would seem to be the king of the jungle, getting the lion's share of media attention. But a relatively unknown feature called "The Iron Giant" is creating a lot of buzz in Hollywood's animation community with some predicting that it could be one of the summer's sleeper hits.

The Warner Bros. film depicts a boy's wonder at meeting a robot from outer space who embodies the youngster's comic-book fantasies. Unlike most Disney and other American feature animation, it's not a musical or based on well-known cartoon characters.

Matt Groening, the creator of the hit animated TV series "The Simpsons" and "Futurama," said, "There's not a single animated project--other than my own--that I'm looking forward to seeing more than 'Iron Giant.' " And the movie is gaining a following in cyberspace; a gushing review on the Web site http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com compares "Iron Giant" to the original "Star Wars," "Casablanca" and "Gone With the Wind."

While the animation community has been excited about the film for months, Warner Bros. has only lately discovered the film's potential appeal and is hurriedly mounting a multi-pronged marketing campaign, which includes in-theater displays, local promotional activities and even sending director Brad Bird on a cross-country publicity tour. The studio has also begun manufacturing a line of "Iron Giant" merchandise.

"Iron Giant" is nearing completion at the Warner Bros. Feature Animation unit in Glendale, but the studio only recently gave it a late summer release date--Aug. 6. Compared to the media machine Disney has already cranked up for "Tarzan," which is scheduled to open June 18, some animators worry Warners won't give "Iron Giant" the attention it merits.

"At Disney, they treat an animated feature like the D-day invasion," one animator noted.

Warners may not have realized how good a film it had until two test screenings received high marks from audiences comparable to its surprise 1993 family hit, "Free Willy."

The release of "Iron Giant" comes in the wake of two notable failures involving animation and Warners--this at a time when animation in general is booming in Hollywood. Although "Space Jam," Warner's live-action/animated vehicle for Michael Jordan, earned $213.4 million worldwide, the studio's costly but ill-conceived Arthurian tale, "The Quest for Camelot," bombed last year, grossing only $40.3 million worldwide. In addition, Morgan Creek's "The King and I," which Warners released earlier this year, has only made about $11 million after a month in domestic release.

In a summer crammed with such broadly appealing films as "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace," "Wild Wild West," "Tarzan" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," Warners faces the challenge of preventing "Iron Giant" from being lost in the shuffle.

"Iron Giant" emphasizes the relationships between the characters rather than elaborate production numbers. Based on a 1968 novel by the late British poet laureate Ted Hughes, the story centers on Hogarth Hughes, an adolescent boy growing up in a small Maine town during the late '50s. Hogarth is a likable, bright kid who obeys his widowed mother--most of the time. His life changes when a 50-foot robot crash-lands in the nearby forest. Hogarth befriends the Giant, whom he has to protect from a weaselly government agent.

At a time when animation costs are rising throughout the industry, the more modest scope of "Iron Giant" has made it a relative bargain. The film is being made in only two years--less than half the time of most major animation features--and its estimated budget of $45 million to $55 million is about half of the cost that Disney and DreamWorks have spent in recent years on their big animated features.

Warners declined to discuss its marketing plans for "Iron Giant" in detail, but those who have seen the film hope the studio positions it as a movie that will appeal to a broad audience rather than just children. Although the studio has a rich legacy of cartoon shorts starring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, it has failed to create comparable characters in features. Many artists see "Iron Giant" as a golden opportunity for the studio to do just that, a view that the producer, Allison Abbate, shares.

"They [Warners] give us the impression ["Iron Giant"] is going to be a big movie," Abbate said. "We got a summer release date because kids are going to be out of school."

Bird, the film's director, is used to dealing with material that appeals to more than just kids. He spent the last decade working on such hit animated TV series as "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill," but has wanted to move into feature animation for some time. It was something of a coup when he signed a deal with Warners for his first full-length project.

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