Anders Walter’s I Kill Giants, based on Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s graphic novel, is a moody, full-hearted tale of a preteen girl who believes that she’s the only thing standing between life and the imminent destruction of her seaside town at the hands of giants right out of myth. When we see the monsters, which isn’t often, they’re gargantuan beasts with horns and sharp teeth, stomping around the woods. But Giants for the most part comes off as grounded in reality, a gritty world of bullies, tenuous friendships and financial struggles. Walter is riding a tricky line, but it’s his mixing of fantasy and reality, making the edges between the two porous, that ultimately sells the film. We might not need to know whether the giants are real.
Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) spends her free time in a little washed-ashore boat that she has transformed into a secret clubhouse. She’s the kind of kid a frustrated teacher might call “too smart for her own good.” Barbara can intellectualize her grief as a coping mechanism — she just can’t allow herself to feel it. Instead, she busies herself laying down protective talismans and conducting experiments to find which concoctions of whatever’s left in the refrigerator will attract the giants to her traps. She maintains control over life and herself with these rituals. So when the story introduces a school therapist, Mrs. Molle (Zoe Saldana), I was worried Walter was about to pathologize Barbara, and we’d get diagnoses of her being OCD or autistic, a tendency I’ve come to abhor in films. (Can’t kids just be weird?) But Walter keeps the psychological jargon and Molle’s professional thoughts at bay, maintaining a tight focus on Barbara.
The film suggests Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, in the trust the director places in its child character to tell her own story without the adults butting in too much. Wolfe is a talent, simultaneously tough and tender in her performance. The young actor’s face flushes red as Barbara grows angry, and drains to white when Barbara knows she’s been caught in a lie. Wolfe gives Barbara the air of a girl who’s grown sweaty on the monkey bars at recess and refuses to come back to school when called, the kind of kid adults either want to punish or protect but whom they rarely understand.
If J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls (2017) had a messy, misbehaving kid sister, it would be I Kill Giants. The similarities in their storylines are undeniable. But Monster is more posh, riding on the Brit coattails of a Harry Potter adventure tradition, with its combo of large, austere homes and fantastical locations, while Giants takes place predominantly outside in an economically depressed town. Both display phenomenally breathtaking CGI animation, but Giants' effects sequences are fewer and further between. It’s Wolfe’s performance and the threat of a huge, crushing creature that drive the narrative.