Release Date: March 23, 2018 (Limited and VOD Platforms)
Director: Anders Walter
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 106 minutes
One of my most vivid memories of university was during an extended period of procrastination in the library, where I discovered the graphic novel that lends its name to the Anders Walter fantasy film I Kill Giants. Reading it cover to cover in a single sitting while my pressing essay on slam poetry went unwritten, I was instantly enraptured by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s ability to mix the frank subjects of grief and mental health in youth with the fantastical flights of fancy that reveal the complex interior of its bunny-eared, Dungeons and Dragons-loving misfit protagonist and her fictitious plight to rid her seaside town of the titular menace.
Such an emotional achievement was this gorgeously illustrated work that, when the inevitable adaptation was finally announced through Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures, the normal reservations one feels when his or her of their favorite pieces of media is selected for the mass entertainment process of being adapted for the screen never quite hit me. Although most likely coming from a place of intense naivety and fan denial at the time, I believed the source material to be too provocative and inventive in delivering its moral on the grieving process to have the crowd-pleasing soul knocked out of it for display on the big screen.
From a surface standpoint Walter and returning writer Kelly maintain much of the charming story beats and character work that afforded the novel a lasting impression. The bespectacled Barbara Thorson remains the abrasive, precocious preteen whose mission to protect the ungrateful residents of her unnamed beachfront hometown reveals itself as an enabling tool for her inability to deal with reality.
Much like many a young adult fantasy protagonist before her, she retreats into a world of her own design, where beings the size of skyscrapers constantly threaten to devastate anything in their path if it weren’t for her obsessive magic rituals of drawing occult signs, crafting charms out of refuse, mixing potions, marking the forest, etc.
Played by rising star Madison Wolfe, the character feels similar but noticeably watered down and flat, as Wolfe, despite her best efforts, cannot rise to the plot’s more stirring turns. There’s no denying she looks the part and is capable of carrying the film, but when pressed to bite back at authority or be on the verge of a breakdown, the delivery feels wooden and insincere.
Her odd obsession plays out at home under the eye of a well meaning but put upon elder sister/reluctant guardian Karen (Imogen Poots) and at school under the warming encouragement of therapist Mrs. Molle (Zoe Saldana). While purposefully underwritten as to not detract from Barbara and her emotional journey, Saldana and Poots do what they can with the little the script asks of them yet still feel ornamentary to the film.
Further, scenes where Barbara confronts reality that are meant to elucidate her perspective and her imminent crisis just don’t accomplish that. I felt her inner nature and intentions were kept frustratingly unknowable, and too much emphasis was put on her actions to explain. We see her perform her rituals, even inviting her first-ever friend Sophia along for the weird ride of building charms out of animal carcasses, but her character feels hollow in that I can never place where she is mentally as she does it.
It’s a very surface approach to the adaptation that hopes to mimic the DIY fantasy elements of the source material but purely for an aesthetic purpose because the significance behind these design choices are never clear.
As long as I am on design, I will do my due diligence and praise this film for its unmistakable look and tangible feel. It’s an impressively textured film where everything in the aesthetic – from Barbara’s patchy, worn denim clothing and bent bunny ears to the primal charms she decorates the town with – has a clear consistency and impression to it that does a lot for the fantastical mood it strives for.
Equally impressive is how Walter works his way around the Irish and Belgian coasts used for this film and how he locates his hapless hero in the winding woods and moving seashores. There is a strong visual motif running throughout where he frequently situates her in these expansive settings to emphasize how small she is, and it works wonders for the moody fantasy Walter invokes. There is no denying I Kill Giants is a looker, but its priorities could use some re-organizing before that could really matter.
Not to harp on the belaboured book-vs-film adaptation debate that normally occupies a lot of reviews about the screen treatments of beloved novels, but if I Kill Giants has one consistent failing, it is its inability to uphold the fantastical elements. The most compelling aspect of Kelly’s story was the poignant ambiguity through which it presents Barbara’s retreats to her fantasy world, purposefully leaving the reader to consider the tenuous divide between the real and the fake while putting us directly in her perspective.
Walter sadly tips his hand way too early and shows us these titular giants in all their CGI grandeur, stomping around the misty forests by her house in what feels like studio-mandated action scenes that add little and take a lot of mystery away. The intensity of Barbara’s relation to fantasy should be how we gauge her mental state, but the film does away with that ambiguity and, subsequently, with one of the story’s most captivating themes.
The film does get back on track near the end as Barbara reaches her emotional crisis point, which dovetails into a Titan (the largest and most dangerous type of giant) on its way to raze the town, and the ending – nearly identical to the source, mind you – is strong and well-earned. Again Walter tips his hand and pushes the all-important twist well before the final conflict even begins, but the presentation of this moment and the poignancy of its aftermath are well done to warrant a pass. It’s funny to me how this and A Monster Calls both used the identical device of monsters to represent the same issue in radically different ways, but that film gives more credence to its main character and his journey than I Kill Giants.
While carrying some noticeable blind spots and some (criminally) dropped story elements, I Kill Giants is an adaptation with good intentions and a lot of work put into its stellar look. As a fan of the source’s unsuspecting depth, this isn’t nearly enough for me, but as an introduction to this story, it is more than suitable.