By Elias Savada.
Children dealing with their fears – although not those anxieties normally associated with horror genre tropes like The Dark, Loud Noises, and such – play a central role in I Kill Giants, which melds one Eastern Long Island, New York, family’s enigmatic trauma with monstrous, noxious beasts that inhabit the mind of a young girl on the edge of a terrible sadness. It’s a sentimental tale, a fitting debut feature for Danish-born director Anders Walter, a 2014 Oscar-winner for his fantasy-tinged live action short Helium, about a brief relationship between a terminally ill boy and a clumsy, storytelling hospital orderly. (Click here if you want to watch his earlier  award-winning short 9 Meter).
The story aspects of Walter’s film slightly belie the comic book indulgences of the director’s youth and later years, all the more interesting since he did not known that his first long-form work was based on an acclaimed graphic novel when he first read the script. The underlying American 7-issue series (collected into a 300-page book in 2009) was created by Joe Kelly and artist Ken Niimura. Kelly, notable for his pencil and writing on Deadpool, Daredevil, X-Men, and Spider-Man (and that’s just on the Marvel Comics side of his well-illustrated life), also penned the film’s screenplay (his first feature, too), and he provided a protective, nurturing vision for the source material, as told through the eyes of a troubled 12-year-old geek.
What Walter does embrace, at least in the three films of his I’ve watched, is hope through fear – of dying, be it one’s own mortality or that of a loved one. It’s a universal human foible that when someone close dies, it’s the living who suffer, through mourning, a feeling tinged with loneliness. With I Kill Giants, pre-teen Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) has life-threatening issues with her unhappy life, although it takes most of the film to discover what they are. At school she has no friends, as her earthy, outlandish appearance and furry bunny ears scream “I’m the resident weirdo” to her classmates and teachers. She is choice picking for Taylor (Rory Jackson), the school bully, and her mean girls’ clique. Yet Barbara takes the abuse in stride, as her agenda, which no one else comprehends – and only she (and us in the audience) can see. That involves finding and killing giants that are threatening to obliterate her small seaside community. She’s created her own artifacts, including runes protecting her school, a well-worn felt purse named Covelesky (referring to a 1908 rookie Philadelphia Phillies ballplayer, whose nickname interests her), a giant-slaying war hammer, and a wizard’s brew of colorful, homemade, specialty bait goops. These all take on various importance as Barbara’s efforts at dealing with the variety of imaginary monsters and schoolyard fiends are forcefully revealed to any of her small group of acquaintances. As the beasts grow fiercer, the reasons for Barbara’s behavior are revealed.
The one adult who takes an interest in her is the guidance counselor, Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana), whose push for more information from the girl often leads to a disarming and occasionally physical retort. Sophia (Sydney Wade) a shy, pig-tailed transfer student from Leeds, England, likes Barbara’s outlandish spunk, and a reluctant friendship evolves as the magical fantasies bring each of them into more dangerous situations.
At the Thorson household, which appears devoid of any parental guidance, are an annoying brother who endlessly plays videogames and an older sister, Karen (a wonderfully expressive Imogen Poots), constantly flustered by calls from the school about Barbara’s shenanigans and hoping that, one day, her siblings might enjoy her cooking.
Shot mostly on location in Belgium and Ireland, this multi-country effort (including U.S., Belgian, Chinese, and British financing) puts on a well-designed American face, particularly among its adolescent cast. The visual effects, set against an unsophisticated yet gnarly and damp forest/coastal landscape, are fine and could be frightened for a younger child. In tone, the film feels like a cousin to fantasy-theme A Monster Calls and Where the Wild Things Are. Walter’s longtime collaborators Rasmus Heise (director of photography) and Lars Wissing (editor), joined by production designer Susie Cullen, are up to task of supporting the comic book’s styling and director’s narrative vision.
There’s a nice, intelligent air about this film, which offers up a well-crafted coping mechanism for dealing with childhood depression. For all the issues I had with big-budget woes of the young adult adventure A Wrinkle in Time, families should consider giving I Kill Giants a ride.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).