By Owen Gleiberman
Updated August 13, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The title character of The Iron Giant, a gently fantastical new animated feature, is a towering mechanical man with huge swivel-socket joints, a friendly underbite, and perfect-circle eyes that emanate an eerie pale glow. In the movie, which is set in 1957, this pre-android with mysterious origins (Is he an alien? A Soviet weapon?) emerges from the woods near a small town in Maine and attempts to chow down on a power station, at which point he is saved from short-circuited oblivion by a freckly, rambunctious kid named Hogarth. The iron giant, who remains utterly docile until provoked, becomes the boy’s companion, and, like E.T, he even learns to say a few words. Yet he never acquires a name, and there’s nothing cute or showy about his quizzically domed astro head, his softly clanging movements, or his occasional attempt to eat the rear end of an automobile.

The Iron Giant transports you back to that moment in the Atomic Age when a simple nuts-and-bolts robot could seem as magical to a kid as anything in science fiction. Directed by Brad Bird, a former consultant on The Simpsons, the movie, which is drawn with lyrical no-frills elegance, evokes not just the look but the atmosphere of the ’50s, a time when paranoia was everywhere yet the surface world — diners, main streets — provided a comfort zone of protection. (The true ”atomic shelter” was the shiny bigness of America itself.)

Bird conjures the quietude of the era by breaking with the Disney mold: no songs, no sidekicks. He comes up with nifty black-and-white parodies of nuclear-menace horror films, and he allows the relationship between Hogarth and the giant to develop, organically, into a true friendship. When the military honchos arrive to face down the ”monster,” it turns out that he’s both a friend and a weapon — an arsenal of goodness. At times, The Iron Giant is more serene than it needs to be, but it’s a lovely and touching daydream.