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When he began making movies, at 21, M. Night Shyamalan was already a slick and confident director, one keen eye focused on the marketability of his art form and the other on extracting maximum evocation from his intelligently filmed locations. In his first feature, Praying With Anger (released in 1993), Madras seems exotic, but not expansive enough to cover the plot’s tottering frame. For all of its temples and ashoka trees, the film uses modern India’s ancient struggles for mundane purposes. It comes off as a sort of Orientalist after-school special in which a hyphen-American boy, played by the director, goes back to the old country to reckon with the strictures of culture (he falls for a girl from a conservative family that is planning to arrange her marriage) and religion (he provokes, then resolves, a microcosmic Hindu-vs.-Muslim struggle in a shockingly sentimental manner). Now that he’s 27, Shyamalan’s true art is accessibility, and his knack for it is a little impressive (he’s so young) and a little off-putting (he’s so young).

The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s third feature, stars Bruce Willis as golden child psychologist Malcolm Crowe. As the film opens, Crowe is gods-tauntingly possessed of all good things—a loving wife (Rushmore’s Olivia Williams), a Philadelphia house with a wine cellar, and a mayor’s citation for his Midaslike touch with kiddies’ brains. Shyamalan wastes no time in stripping Crowe of his good fortune. During the Crowes’ celebration of his award, a tormented former patient (Donnie Wahlberg) breaks into the house and tearfully confronts the doctor for not fixing him. Brandishing a gun and a cryptic accusation, “Do you know why you’re afraid when you’re alone? I know why,” the one unsavable child takes a shot at Crowe and then at himself.

Haunted by this stain on his reputation, not to mention his bathroom floor, Crowe throws himself into the rehabilitation of another kid, one with symptoms similar to those of the late former patient. Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) is one of those genuinely weird kids who say smart things but don’t do well in school or get along with anyone, and whom life hasn’t even compensated by making particularly eccentric or gifted. The kid is reluctant to tell Crowe his secret, although he is clearly restless and unhappy with his miserable mien, frequent visits to church, and mysterious room-within-a-room, where he keeps an arsenal of figurines. His fiercely protective, working-class mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), can’t understand or handle the effects of Cole’s interior life. It’s hard enough to raise an 8-year-old solo, let alone one who can’t explain why, after you turn around for two seconds, every kitchen drawer and cupboard stands noiselessly open.

Shyamalan controls such tasty little shocks with aplomb and a high degree of smugness. (No one who has configured his own name like that is uncursed by smugness.) But despite the plastic smell of supercompetence, free from the perfume of genius as it is, The Sixth Sense is a masterful orchestration of the audience’s wits. Its plot is always one step ahead of the minds in the seats, and it doles out visual jolts at a pace and in a manner for which the most susceptible ‘fraidy cat cannot prepare. (This facility has something to do with the use of sounds and the music—Shyamalan has David Lynch’s sensitivity for creating a deep sonic unease. It may also have to do with the fact that the broad next to me literally leapt out of her seat, squealing, at the smallest scare—very unnerving.)

Cole’s gift—and misery—is that dead people appear to him, plain as life, walking and talking and going about their business in a clearly post-viable state. (They’re all hanged and burnt and head-blasted—hasn’t anyone in Philadelphia ever died of old age?) As Cole states, “They don’t know they’re dead,” so the revenants attempt to finish up the business of their lives even though they no longer have lives. At first, Crowe doubts the kid’s sanity, but he scrambles through the cassettes of some old sessions with the unredeemed patient only to hear the dead chatting in the background after he leaves the room. He tells Cole to work with the ghosts instead of running from them, to help them tie up loose ends.

Shyamalan’s premise (he wrote as well as directed) has the feel of something fresh and original—his kaleidoscope of ghosts old and new is an imaginative panoply of personalities and unpleasant endings that teaches Cole more about the rich diversity of human existence than the monotony of death. And the manner in which the scares are exposed—like a still curtain being jerked back unexpectedly—is freakier than what you actually see, although you don’t realize it until later. But the resolution to the premise—that Cole the psychic instrument must appease the dead in order for their souls to rest—seems a hoary old solution to an interesting problem. Until, that is, the kickass twist at the end. You can’t expect a guy like Shyamalan to resist a kickass ending twist; when it comes, you repattern the entire grid of your viewing experience to fit it around new facts. The sign of a director with crowd-pleasing in his bones is that you’re impressed as hell for as long as it takes to get back to your car; by the time the key’s in the lock, it all falls apart.

And for a sure-fire sign that you are not in for a lame or patronizing cartoon despite the generic title (The Iron Giant? So what?) and vague provenance: The kiddie hero’s name is Hogarth. Not the prettiest name for a spunky BB-gun-toting buckaroo, even in 1957, but for conjuring up an image of a wise young recorder of human folly, it can’t be beat. It’s smart but not smartass, like everything in this delightful atomic parable and follow-your-heart boy’s story that no parent will hate.

What isn’t smart about The Iron Giant? Maybe the excess of potty jokes, but otherwise it’s all good. The nameless giant shows up one day in Rockwell, Maine, a place in America where Norman Rockwell’s fantasies meet Roswell, N.M.’s. On the pro-giant side are Hogarth Hughes’ pretty mom (think a 2-D Ashley Judd), who works in the Rockwell diner, and Dean, the studly beatnik artist—and mighty sexy for a cartoon man—who shelters the big gray guy in his scrapyard. Among the antis are, well, the rest of the country, represented by a devious parody of a good guy, Kent Mansley, a G-man with the hots for both the intrigues of government and Mrs. Hughes. As Mansley tries bribes, threats, and paternal condescension to wring the giant’s whereabouts from young Hogarth, the boy deepens his friendship with his big metallic pal, bringing him comic books, good advice, and a scrap-iron smorgasbord.

Much of the animation is a scream, as when the giant’s eyes shine with joy and gluttony when they come upon his scrapyard feast. There’s a parody of a ’50s sci-fi horror flick that’s almost too accurate, and a perky duck-and-cover educational film (both in black and white, naturally) brimming with contempt for the A-bomb-mongers who would bring such fear into children’s classrooms. Despite the tender friendship between boy and what Dean calls “a big gun,” The Iron Giant is really about this fear—not just of otherness or war per se, but of the destruction of America’s own macho myths of itself, exemplified by the collective neurosis engendered by Sputnik.

That said, there isn’t much plot to speak of; Hogarth and I.G. bond and frolic before the Army is called in to make a nuclear mess of things. But by then the giant has learned his lesson from Hogarth’s comic books and young-but-wise pep talks: Biology—or construction, I guess—is not destiny, and a big metal man with superpowers can choose to be Atomo, the town-stomping villain, or a kind of big, clanking Superman. Even if the kids don’t get the anti-escalation morality tale, they’ll grasp that it wasn’t the artists, rebels, and working-class single moms who precipitated nuclear disaster, but the cowardly, paranoid government man in his natty trench coat. And who wouldn’t choose to use his powers for good instead of evil if such behavior promised, even vaguely, that he’d end up with the coolest friend in town? CP