Let's get something out of the way up front: I Kill Giants is more than likely going to remind viewers of at least one of two possible movies, as there's a heavy dose of both Spike Jonze's Where The Wild Things Are, as well as J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls contained in its text. Yet Anders Walter's adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura - which Kelly penned the screenplay for himself - is still a rather impressive work of spectacle filmmaking. I Kill Giants often goes for the emotional jugular while telling the tale of young Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe): a precocious fifth-grader who wears bunny ear antennae wherever she goes, plays copious amounts of Dungeons & Dragons (seemingly by herself), and often escapes into a world of monsters and make-believe, in which she tracks and traps the titular towering beasts. Of course, this is all a giant metaphor for the girl's struggles to cope with trauma in the real world...or is it?
No. It is. One of the best things about I Kill Giants is that Walter’s film is never really ambiguous about whether Barbara is making this all up in her head. She's obviously a disturbed little girl, which her new friend Sophia (Sydney Wade) - a transfer student from England - picks up on right away. Despite all the explanations regarding different types of giants that have roamed the earth for centuries (living in frost or magma) she knows as soon as the little American girl starts trying to pass off a dead dog's fate as the work of mythical creatures that something's rotten in her new seaside home. At school, the kind psychologist Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana) tries to break through to the ogre slayer by becoming her friend. Yet Barbara isn't having any of it; acting increasingly violent, and not only engaging the biggest bully in her class (Rory Jackson), but even slapping the shrink when she gets close to penetrating the fantastical shell the moppet's manufactured for herself.
However, there's plenty for our hero to be upset about. Her parents are apparently absent, leaving both Barbara and her brother in the care of their older sister Karen (Imogen Poots), who struggles to keep her job while coming home and cooking dinner for the family she prematurely inherited. Whenever Karen tries to reach out to Barbara, her sibling closes off from her as well, retreating to a tent in the basement, surrounded by pennants for the Philadelphia Phillies as she listens to recordings of old baseball games. To reveal the true nature of their predicament would be giving away the central mystery that drives I Kill Giants, but with familiar territory comes a fairly easy narrative and thematic map to chart. Anyone who's seen the above mentioned movies will have at least some idea of where this is all headed.
Thankfully, Walter brings a rather impressive sense of scope to I Kill Giants. Between this and Liam O'Donnell's Beyond Skyline, it's getting tough to tell these VOD epics apart from their big screen counterparts. The SFX used to bring the massive creatures to life are almost as good as the latest Marvel endeavor (or AT LEAST as good as the finale of Justice League), and Rasmus Heise's cinematography is incredibly stark and moody. The oceanfront location shooting has a constant overcast haze thrown over it, like we're experiencing a never-ending fall season while stuck at the beach. Walter's background in crafting spectacle-heavy shorts (such as Helium) comes in handy when it’s time to blend the fantastical and the grounded together, creating a world that's rather seamless, for the most part. These days, you don't have to leave your living room to receive top tier blockbuster entertainment that's got a little more on its mind than you'd initially expect.
Unfortunately, if there's a weak link in the entire endeavor, it's Madison Wolfe. Through giant glasses, she tries to emote and sell us on the grim truth that Barbara has to face every day, and just comes off mostly flat for the majority of I Kill Giants' runtime. While she's never truly bad, the unremarkable nature of her performance might actually be worse. Admittedly, it's a lot to ask a blossoming actress to carry your entire picture on her tiny shoulders. Yet Wolfe's worked with some top tier talent in the past - including David O. Russell (Joy) and Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) - so it's difficult to discern if she just couldn't connect with the material 100%, or maybe Walter wasn't able to pull a performance out of her, and instead focused on building the visual world instead.
Nevertheless, I Kill Giants is still a fairly impressive achievement for such a modestly budgeted movie. The methodical way in which Kelly's screenplay gradually unravels the nature of Barbara's emotional angst acts as a rather keen study of how trying to cope with pain alone is much more difficult than enlisting allies in the fight against personal darkness. In a way, the author actually comes out the biggest victor in I Kill Giants, proving that sometimes one of the hardest tasks - the "kill your darlings" proposition of adapting your own material - can yield a fairly spectacular cross-medium effort. The end result may not be perfect, but it's never less than engrossing, ending on a coda that's truly tear-jerking.
I Kill Giants is in select theaters and on VOD today.