It may be hard to remember such a strange and different era, but there was a time before Vin Diesel was Dominic Toretto. Though the actor is now synonymous with the record-breaking franchise without shame known as The Fast & Furious, in the 1990s, he was just another person struggling in Hollywood. Born Mark Sinclair, he adopted the stage name “Vin Diesel” as a bouncer in New York City to sound more tough. And given that he was prone to making things like this instructional breakdancing video and was obsessed with the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, perhaps he did feel the need to seem more tough. His acting career began in earnest when he wrote, directed and produced the independent gang drama Strays, which lead to a small part in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film Saving Private Ryan in 1998. A few years later, he would truly break out with the first Fast & Furious film, but between those two, he made the best Vin Diesel movie: The Iron Giant.
Perhaps many people do not think of the 1999 Warner Bros animated film The Iron Giant as a Vin Diesel movie. After all, it is legendary for being the directorial debut of animation wunderkind/bete noire Brad Bird, who would later go on to massive commercial and artistic success with The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. And the film features the voices of Friends actor Jennifer Anniston and actor/jazz heartthrob Harry Connick Jr much more prominently than Diesel. In fact, the voice cast is stacked with talent like Christopher McDonald (ie, the smarmy bad guy from Happy Gilmore and most movies), theater legend/Frasier’s dad John Mahoney and professional grizzled person M. Emmet Walsh. The Iron Giant is also revered for its visual style, which was painstakingly overseen by Brad Bird to evoke mid-century Americana artists like Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth, even if it drove the animators to the brink of madness. But even though he has the least lines of dialogue of any actor in the movie, it simply would not come together as the emotional story it is without Vin Diesel.
The Iron Giant is a Vin Diesel movie because he is The Iron Giant. While the massive, otherworldly alien machine was originally planned to have a digitally modulated voice, Brad Bird eventually realized that Diesel’s deep, gravelly performance made The Iron Giant more emotionally affecting than he could have thought. When The Iron Giant first arrives on Earth from parts unknown, he is literally a living weapon. He does not speak. He cannot speak. It takes the friendship and love of a human boy named Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) to turn him into something other than a machine of destruction, to the point where a being that was created only to bring death sacrifices its life for others. And between that arrival and his end, his voice slowly becomes more human, more resonant, and more emotional. His final utterance of “Superman” as he intercepts an incoming nuclear weapon is more charged with meaning and depth than most live action performances could ever achieve.
It is easy to see some of the seeds of The Fast & Furious’ Dominic Toretto in The Iron Giant. As portrayed by Vin Diesel, both are hulking, near-silent behemoths that can react with terrifying violence. But they are both beings that feel so deeply and care so much that even the few words they rumble out are incredibly affecting. Without The Iron Giant, there is no Dominic Toretto. There is no Groot, a role that can fairly be described as “The Plant-Based Giant. It is all the more amazing when you watch Diesel out of character and realize that in real life, he is nothing like the rumbling, slow moving roles he is most famous for. In real life, Diesel is lively and excitable and runs off at the mouth. The fact that he can persuade us all that a giant 1950s robot from space is alive and full of love is a testament to the power of a Vin Diesel movie.
On its initial release, The Iron Giant sank like a stone at the box office and essentially became the last hand-drawn 2D animated film out of Hollywood. Brad Bird spent years in the figurative wilderness before a quickly emerging Pixar Studios took him in, and it wasn’t until 2001 when a cheap genre film about car thieves made Vin Diesel a star. But time has come around on The Iron Giant and it is now universally regarded as a masterpiece. And while it may not always be regarded as a Vin Diesel movie, that is ultimately what it is. And it’s the best one.