Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our short reviews in the style of festival films, VR advancements and other special event launches. This review was originally published at the Toronto International Film Festival 2017 and was updated to coincide with the theatrical release and broadcast of the film.
In 2009, comic book writer Joe Kelly and artist J.M. Ken Niimura produced one of the best graphic novels of the year: I Kill Giants, the action-packed story of a defiant and problematic fifth-grader obsessed with his private war against giants. Throughout the book, Kelly is shy with her readers about the truth behind Barbara Thorson's private war. Her classmates see her as something strange and detestable, while school officials consider her imaginative and problematic at best, and in the worst case she is dangerously disturbed. Nobody considers the possibility that she really is facing giants, because giants do not exist.
Kelly also wrote the live action film adaptation, which explains why she is so smart and careful in interpreting the same act of balance with the public as the graphic novel. Viewers can see what Barbara (Madison Wolfe) sees: the gigantic and dangerous forest giant that stalks her coastal city, the intimidating heralds that irritate her when her traps do not work. But Kelly still encourages viewers to consider whether Barbara is the only sane person in the city, or if she is fighting against her own illusions.
Either way, she is clearly hurting people who care about her and are trying to help her, including her sweet new friend Sophia (Sydney Wade), her tentative school counselor, Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana of Star Trek) and her desperate and frayed sister Karen (Imogen Poots). Even if Barbara is the only one who can see giants and knows how to fight against them, her level of obsession with them has taken a dangerous advantage, leading her to act in school and scare away other people. She acts as if this is a natural side effect of her role as protector of the city, but she is clearly alone, angry and carrying a burden that other people misunderstand. The film gradually reveals the nature of that weight, partly as a mystery, but more importantly, as a study of how to hide pain is only harder and heavier than processing it with other people.
What is the genre?
A little fantasy, a little horror, a bit of family drama. It is probably best described as a dark fairy tale, equally indebted to Guillermo del Toro and The NeverEnding Story. It's a kind of giant monsters movie, which premieres the same weekend as Pacific Rim: the uprising feels like a cunning choice. And it's kind of like a movie of "Who's the real nut here?", Which makes it even more impressive to come out the same weekend as Steven Soderbergh, with the same theme as Unsane.
What is it about?
A little bit of I Kill Giants is just process. It opens with Barbara preparing and testing bait for the giants, designing experiments and observing the results. There is a personal human history between Barbara and the various figures in her life. (Virtually all of them are women, including the people who support them and the harassers who torment them, the roles of the male characters are minimal). But the film spends a little time with her alone, pursuing her silent obsession, protecting her school with runes and handmade fetishes, leaving containers of rotten food around the city as additional bait, and other activities that look like mental illness from an angle, and a lonely and complicated vigil of another. It is impressive how, at such a young age, Barbara is so severely devoted to her self-proclaimed duties. She treats other people with intrepid contempt because she sees herself doing more important work, with greater consequences, than whatever she is using to fill their empty lives. But somehow, she earned that contempt. She works hard in planning and dealing with giants. She is a teenager with a full-time job.
But more than that, I Kill Giants is about loneliness and how difficult it can be to face our fears, let alone let other people understand those fears. Barbara takes on her lonely task with the ferocity of any hero who saves the world because no one else seems to be doing it, but she also tries to let other people into her life. It is revealing, and tragic, that she seems to be more balanced and sure of herself when she keeps everyone at a distance. Only the opening seems to leave her vulnerable, scared and insecure.
What is it really about?
The pain, the denial, the enormous fantasies of childhood and a couple of different types of personal courage. Also: bullies, and the way they increase each negative emotion. The thugs suck.
This is the debut feature film director of the Danish Anders Walter, who has already won an Oscar for his short film Helium. As the film's first statement, I Kill Giants is particularly safe and remarkable. The CGI effects around the giants are clearly low budget and a bit unstable, but otherwise, the movie looks wonderful. The cold tones of a grayish city and the deep forests around it contrast with the bright colors of Barbara's sets, emphasizing their separation from the world. The images are sharp and striking, suitable for a fairy tale of the real world. The graphic novel is visually dynamic and fantastic in a way that suggested it could only work in animation, but Walter gives it a real seriousness that lies somewhere between a movie of the Bull and The Night by M. Night Shyamalan.
The biggest flaw in the film may be that the story becomes abrupt and artificially pales towards the end, particularly in the way Barbara's story and personal problems are resolved. The story strongly reminds J.A. The Bayonne film A Monster Calls – Kelly's graphic novel arrived on the shelves two years before the Patrick Ness novel A Monster Calls, but the film adaptation of the latter beat I Kill Giants on the screen for a year, and the Symbolism and even some of the monster The images are undeniably so similar that I Kill Giants feels as if I was operating in the shadow of the other movie.
But I Kill Giants has its own distinct strengths, especially in the fierce and tremendously painful performance of Wolfe. Like a girl running shamelessly in uneven layers and rabbit ears (she tells Sophia that they put her in contact with her spiritual animal), she presents a potentially comical figure. But Wolfe gives him a sense of nuance and humanity. She is a bit silly, as sometimes children are when they take things very seriously. But his emotional armor is believable and convincing, and the cracks constantly visible in that armor make his story moving. A scene in which awkwardly, painfully tries to relate to his sister Karen through puppets and improvised action figures, reveals the enormous struggle that Barbara finds in her efforts to relate to people. And yet, that scene is also fun. There is a lot of emotion in I Kill Giants. The way Wolfe interprets it and Walter framing it and recording it, makes Barbara's trip work both as a metaphor and as a more literal experience in navigating the particular monsters of mourning.
What should be qualified?
There is some action of scary monsters and some painful issues that can go through the heads of children, but nothing graphic. It is a sufficiently secure PG.
How can I see it?
I Kill Giants will have a premiere in movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles on March 23. It will be in streaming services, including Amazon Video and iTunes, on the same day.