A big part of movies is the protagonist’s arc. As in they begin in one place, and end in another; they change. Tony Stark learns to take responsibility for his actions. Rey chooses to embrace her destiny. Duncan gets his own back in The Way Way Back. Change is a vital part of a story.
But I’ve been thinking about The Iron Giant a bunch recently (because reasons) and something’s been nagging at my mind: Hogarth doesn’t change all that much. He doesn’t find himself making some massive choice towards the end that sums up his growth throughout the film. Maybe he proves that he can take care of something, but there’s not much of an internal change in Hogarth. But the movie works — why?
I will perpetually hold up Hot Rod as being a fine (albeit surprising) example of excellent storytelling. Seriously, I consider the Lonely Island’s comedy to be near-perfect. The plotting is impeccable and if you wanna learn how to tell a story watch that movie. Now, Rod changes over the course of the movie — somewhat. Sure, he gets his mustache of self-actualization, but Rod at the end of the movie is still very similar to Rod at the start.
The idea of a protagonist changing comes with it the idea of something big. Tony Stark makes a very conscious decision to begin making reparations, and at the end of Iron Man makes a sacrificial play — something he would never have done at the start of the film. Rey takes Maz Kanata’s advice and looks ahead for her belonging rather than waiting on Jakku and, at the end, takes up a lightsaber in the Coolest Moment of 2015. Duncan becomes more assertive through his job at Water Wizz and ultimately makes a stand for himself. But Rod starts as a dude who does stunts and ends the movie as a guy who does stunts. Over the course of his stunt-doing he is able to win the girl, earn the money for his step-dad’s surgery, and then kick his step-dad’s ass. But why? Rod’s arc still works so how does Rod change?
Let’s go over the plot of Hot Rod again. Specifically, when he recommits for good: he’s realized that everyone thinks he’s a joke and he gives up being a stuntman to be an ‘adult,’ donning a button-up shirt and purchasing a shopping cart of liquor. His crew calls him out, saying the best thing about him was how he was always himself. But Rod’s having none of it until that night when he drives his very high friend to the hospital, who too tells Rod how much he means to everyone. So Rod recommits, makes good with his crew, and (attempts to jump) a whole bunch of school buses. At the end, Rod is vindicated. He doubles down on the essence of his character and thus self-actualizes. So no, Rod doesn’t change in a revelatory way (he doesn’t give up stuntmanship in favor of becoming an investment banker), but he makes a decision to really commit to being himself. Rod at the end is accepted by his community (and his step-father) because he is himself. Rod’s arc sees the very fiber of his being put to test and him deciding that himself is the best to be. The change happens in the eyes of those around him, he goes from loser to hero by being himself.
I suppose then, that Rod’s arc is not unlike Hogarth’s in The Iron Giant. Like Rod, Hogarth doesn’t change too much in the film, he reminds a hopeful kid who’s willing to love unconditionally. Also like Rod, Hogarth is ultimately vindicated, with the Iron Giant he vouched for saving the town of Rockwell. Furthermore we get to see Hogarth’s actions reflected in the Giant, who because of Hogarth’s influence is willing to be a sacrifice. Hogarth remains true to himself, and in light of that, the way he is perceived changes around him. He is faced with an ultimate test of character, and by not backing down, saves the day. There’s an arc there, and the status quo, for Hogarth, is different from where he started.
In all honesty, this rant essay my own rambling examination of how arcs work. To sum it all up, I figure changes don’t have to be inside a protagonist, but can also be how the world sees the protagonist. Just so long as it’s done well, but then, that’s a caveat with everything.