It draws a lot from E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial, The Indian in the Cupboard, and, for that matter, from Lassie, but this story of a boy who befriends an enormous robot from outer space is told with so much humor and heart that it becomes utterly winning in its own right, and the best family movie of the summer.
The story is set in rural Maine, during the late 1950’s. Nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) lives with his waitress mother, Annie(voice of Jennifer Aniston). One night, he discovers a huge robot in the woods, munching on whatever metal he can find, including the town’s electric substation. Hogarth is frightened, but takes pity when the robot is enmeshed in wires, and turns off the power so that the robot can escape.
The next day, Hogarth and the robot begin to get acquainted. The robot turns out to be the world’s best playmate, whether cannonballing into the swimming hole or acting as a sort of amusement park ride. His origins remain mysterious — the robot himself seems to have some memory loss — but his reaction to Hogarth’s toy ray gun suggests that he may have served as a weapon of some kind.
With the help of local beatnick/junk dealer/sculptor Dean McCoppin (voice of Harry Connick, Jr.), Hogarth hides the robot in Dean’s junkyard, where he can eat the scrap metal without attracting attention. But government investigator Kent Mansley (voice of Christopher McDonald) thinks that the giant is part of a communist plot, and presses Hogarth to turn him in. Mansley calls in the army, led by General Rogard (voiced by “Frasier’s” John Mahoney), and suddenly the robot and the surrounding community are in real danger. The resolution is genuinely poignant and satisfying.
The script, based on a book by England’s poet laureate, Ted Hughes, is exceptionally good. The plot has some clever twists, and some sly references to the 1950’s to tickle the memories of boomer parents. Setting the story in the 1950’s puts the government’s reaction to the robot in the context of the red scare and Sputnik (Hogarth and his classmates watch a “duck and cover” instructional movie at school).
It may not have the breathtaking vistas of some of the best Disney animated films, but it is lively and heartwarming and the characters, both human and robot, are so engaging that you might forget they are not real. The robot, created with computer graphics, is seamlessly included with the hand-drawn actors, making the illusion even more complete.
Parents should know that there are some tense moments that may be frightening to young children. There are also some swear words and some potty humor in the film, and parents should caution children that it is not funny to feed someone a laxative disguised as chocolate.
This movie provides a lot of good topics for discussion, including the role of violence and guns (the robot is very upset when a deer is killed by hunters and it automatically shoots back when it sees Hogarth’s toy gun) and how society can find a way to protect itself without creating unnecessary harm. Other good topics include how we make friends with those who are different and Hogarth’s advice to the robot that he can decide what he will be, no matter how he was created.
Video tips: Kids who enjoy this movie will like perennial favorite “E.T” and may also enjoy another movie about an outer-space robot who tries to teach humans about peace, The Day the Earth Stood Still.