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When it comes to the performances of Vin Diesel, it’s often the mounds of muscle and proficiency at doing violence that comes to mind first. Whether it’s his role as Riddick in Pitch Black and even films like the upcoming Bloodshot, many directors mostly focus on the actor’s body as a weapon, sculpted to intimidate and damage. Brad Bird’s directorial debut and beloved anti-war children’s fable The Iron Giant (released just a year before Pitch Black) takes a different approach. Indebted to both Spielbergian adventure films and sci-fi films and serials from the '50s and '60s (as well as, of course, Action Comics), Bird cast Vin Diesel in the eponymous role of the well-meaning alien robot who crash landed in a seaside town in Maine.
It was one of the actor’s earliest film roles, as well as the first of just a handful of animated characters voiced by him, which includes animated versions of Fast & Furious’s Dominic Toretto as well as Riddick, Groot from the Guardians of the Galaxy series and various cameos of each. It’s curious that the actor hasn’t taken on more voice acting roles considering the frequent demonstrations of what can be done with even just a handful of words.
The Iron Giant’s revisitation of the idea of Superman is reconfigured to inspire xenophobia in appearance alone, not just alien power. As a hulking, intimidating (and weaponised) metal man, the film wrestles with the Iron Giant’s outward appearance and conditioning towards violence and war, ultimately making the choice to be a saviour rather than a gun. Set in a time and a place where this outward appearance means everything, which makes the casting of Vin Diesel all the more interesting, especially in retrospect. Though films such as The Fast and The Furious series has ultimately utilised the actor’s innate gentleness to soften his battle hardened characters, it’s a part that exists almost in total opposition to the kind of action roles that have made up the bulk of his acting career. Here, Bird focuses solely on the power of vocals. The slowly expanding vocabulary of the Giant leads the audience to focus on the simple intonations of Diesel’s voice, the film and Bird fully aware of his potential for emotiveness and ability to do a lot with very little.
Restricted to but a few words of speech and basic sounds of expression with grunts and whines, the rumbling baritone of Diesel’s voice is used to great effect in The Iron Giant, an emotive performance used sparingly but effectively. While the Giant is slowly learning speech there’s not much to hang on to other than these simple noises, most of which are used to indicate a general inquisitiveness and good intent, and later insecurity and horror upon discovery of the Giant’s intended purpose. Still, Diesel’s booming voice is a vital connective thread for the film’s themes of militarism and xenophobia. With his loud metallic rasp it’s clear that the potential to intimidate and yell is there but the Giant always emotes and speaks delicately, with all the innocence of a big robot who wants nothing more than to read comics and cannonball into lakes. Producer Alison Abbate said of the choice to cast Diesel that “we were going to be electronically modulating the giant’s voice for that mechanical sound, but we needed a deep, resonant and expressive voice to start with”.
Diesel’s live action roles also house this resonance and expressiveness but they’re rarely the focus, at most alternating between ferocity and tenderness (mostly in the case of Fast & Furious, or maybe even The Pacifier, but it’s been a while since this writer has seen the latter). Toretto’s ferocity stems from a love of his compatriots and his family, the two modes inextricably linked as the audience cheers on the character’s often gratuitous beatdowns of his enemies. On the other hand, the Iron Giant only finds pacifism from their relationship with Hogarth, the boy who found him (and effectively raised him), every act taken to protect him and his hometown only ever a defensive or self-sacrificing one.
Despite the limited vocabulary and speech of the character, it's a performance that has become iconic enough that Diesel was (presumably) cast as another gentle giant, Groot of Guardians of the Galaxy and the Avengers series. The narrative arc is a rough facsimile of the Iron Giant’s journey, as a monosyllabic, clumsy and well-meaning alien with a capacity for great violence, sacrificing themselves for their friends (and returning) before the film’s end. While the role eventually resets the character and keeps him as more of an adorable mascot than in his first appearance, his most significant act is based around communication and pacifism, “we are Groot” supplanting Giant’s cry of “Superman!” Diesel’s wholehearted commitment to Groot, notably recording his lines in every language the film was released in (though this is an easier task for this role than most), it’s could also be seen a sign of his awareness of the simple effect that the tone of one’s voice can have. In both cases his role is a subversion of what strength means and where it lies, ultimately found in compassion rather than aggression. Diesel himself said of the Giant that he felt a real kinship with the character “his strength is the bane of his existence… I’ve always said that I feel like a bull in a china shop, and with the giant, he moves to scratch his back and buildings fall. Actually, I think we came from the same planet”. What was recognised here, before Diesel even became popular for his action hero roles, is this contrast between body and soul. This is all to say that while lately these parts are unfortunately few and far between, Vin Diesel’s best roles are the ones that move past his action hero appearance to recognise his emotive power – one that he can convey in but a few words.