You don't necessarily think of cartoons as a place to find powerful messages, yet there hasn't been a better statement on the nature of violence this year than the one made in "The Iron Giant."

Of course, that doesn't mean that this well-paced, superbly animated feature is a heavy-handed political screed. Instead, it's an exciting, funny and intelligent piece of filmmaking — one that will likely appeal to both children and adults.

Also, the movie indicates there may be another way of "doing" animated films besides the Disney "formula" for animation success, which usually includes musical numbers and cutesy animal sidekicks. "The Iron Giant" is refreshingly free of those cliche devices, instead substituting solid characterization and storytelling.

In fact, this science-fiction/adventure film gives even the best of Disney's animated features a run for their money on several fronts, including story, consistent animation quality and sheer thrills.

(It should be noted, though, that there is a somewhat religiously irreverent scene in the film that may offend some viewers.)

Adapted from English poet Ted Hughes' well-regarded children's book "The Iron Man," the film follows Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal), a 9-year-old Maine resident fascinated with all things science fiction.

So imagine his excitement when he finds the title character (voiced by Vin Diesel, from "Saving Private Ryan"), a 50-foot-tall robot of (evidently) extraterrestrial origins.

In fact, after the boy saves the robot's "life," the two become inseparable companions, and Hogarth tries to educate his childlike new friend, while finding him a steady supply of metal to satiate his hunger.

Hogarth also keeps the robot's existence a secret from everyone, even his hard-working mother (Jennifer Aniston) — although beatnik junkyard owner Dean (Harry Connick Jr.) discovers the robot chowing down on some of his scrap metal.

Worse, fanatical government agent Kent Mansfield (Christopher McDonald) starts snooping around town after hearing reports of alien invasions and Russian secret weapons.

Naturally, Hogarth's suspicious activities soon make him the target of Mansfield's investigations.

Even though the film could have been set in any time period, even in contemporary America, setting it in the Cold War era makes some of the film's relevant points more effective.

The concentration isn't necessarily on making the film topical, though. Director Brad Bird and fellow screenwriter Tim McCanlies tread a fine line between comedy and action, with both aspects of the story working equally well.

Similarly wonderful is the film's melding of traditional cel-type and modern-day computer animation, along with the performances by a well-chosen voice cast.

As Hogarth, Marienthal expresses just the right sense of wonderment, while Diesel's vocal work gives the title character a sense of humanity.

And both Connick and McDonald vie for time as the film's comic center.

"The Iron Giant" is rated PG for animated science-fiction violence, including laser blasts and explosions, scattered profanities (some religiously based) and some mildly vulgar bathroom humor.