Pre-teen Barbara (Madison Wolfe) defends her sleepy new-jersey town from the perils of menacing giants whilst struggling with her own personal trauma in Anders Walter’s fantasy-drama debut feature, I Kill Giants.
Directed by Anders Walter and coming from comic book writer and penciller Joe Kelly’s (whose previous work includes involvement in Marvel comic heavyweights Deadpool and X-men) graphic novel of the same name, I Kill Giants, like a cool drink of water on a hot day, is a refreshing piece of cinema so bold in its attempts that its flaws are easy to overlook.
It’s a film that exists within an interesting milieu that’s surprising to see in cinema’s current landscape, even more so when it comes to children’s films. So often they are packaged as generic crowd pleasers with cookie cutter plots and enough colour and sugar to guarantee ticket sales. The obvious exception to this rule being Pixar’s collection of animated features which deftly navigates the tightrope between the existential weight of life’s bigger questions and the joyful wonders of beautifully imagined, intricately designed animated worlds populated by colourful creatures, talking toys and dogs. In short, Pixar have mastered adult movies for kids.
But, beyond the powerful clout of the Pixar ident and chief creative officer, John Lasseter, children’s films that deal with grown up issues are an underexplored direction in a world where cinema is treated as commodity. It’s easy to see how Kelly’s script, adapted by himself from his own work, could have been snapped up by big studios, re-shaped and dressed to incorporate the sexy selling clout of an 80s’ retro-Spielbergian world as seen last year in both Stranger Things and IT. Instead, I Kill Giants forges its own path, bearing closest resemblance in both style and approach to its themes to Bridge to Terabithia and C.S. Lewis’ ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ series.
Barbara (Wolfe) is a quick-witted, sharp-tongued, plucky pre-teen living on the Jersey shoreline in a house curiously void of parents with her older sister, Karen (Imogen Poots) and brother. At odds with the world surrounding her and her school mates, Barbara, with a set of grubby costume bunny ears firmly secured to her head like a fantastical warrior headdress, races around her town, its shoreline and dark forests, setting traps to hunt and kill giants who threaten to disrupt its peaceful existence.
With the arrival of Sophia (Sydney Wade), a young English girl whose family have relocated stateside, and a vested interest from school psychologist, Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana), Barbara’s obsessive fixation with fighting giants is slowly picked away at and the cracks begin to reveal the struggles and fragility of a troubled young girl. To say more would be to spoil the film.
Aside from three very minor and very brief male character cameos, this is an all-female film led by a commanding performance from Madison Wolfe. Wolfe manages the complexities of her character with aplomb as a bite-sized ball of compacted anger and frustration. She is both fearless and vulnerable and struggling under the weight of a world she does not want to confront, but cannot escape from.
Grief, pain and the inner turmoil of youth are handled with care and detail and treated with deserving maturity. Whereas in Bridge to Terabithia the fantastical world provided a form of sanctuary away from the hardships of everyday life, Walter shrouds the jersey shoreline in greys and blacks from the ever-looming storm clouds that hang overhead. As such, the world in which Barbara exists in and the task she has undertaken as protector of her lands, is both massive and suffocating, a restrictive prison that allows the film to explore the ways in which children can lose themselves in the choppy, swirling waters of responsibility and emotion.
I Kill Giants is an ambitious film and an encouraging one too. To see a grown up treatment of a children’s film that isn’t propped up by animation is brave and interesting. Here’s hoping there’s more like this to come.
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