There are innumerable movies about children creating fantasy worlds to deal with a large and scary trauma — particularly the death of a parent.
In fact, the last two years alone have had two fantasy movies that directly confront that issue, Pete’s Dragon (lyrical and dark, from David Lowery) and A Monster Calls (emotionally raw and visually tremendous, from J. A. Bayona). One of last year’s best documentaries, Liyana, translated the true traumas of African children into animation to convey their metaphorical experiences. Fantasy literature, in general, has always drawn on familiar language to talk about dark experiences.
This broader view is all to say that I Kill Giants is another fantasy movie that tells that same basic story, except with an oddly dull emotional palette. It’s rote, functional moviemaking generally released on VOD and perhaps not getting a wider theatrical release because it simply isn’t much more than its basic premise.
I Kill Giants is based on the acclaimed comic series by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, which I have not read. This is not a review of their work.
We’re introduced to Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) in the midst of a giant hunt. She has a magic war hammer called Covaleski, which she uses to bash giants. Giants come in different shapes and sizes, she explains, including Frost Giants, Swamp Giants, Titans. She creates giant bait using household ingredients like acid, blueberries, pie and glitter. From the start, we know Barbara’s fantasies about giants are a coping mechanism for life difficulties. Her sister Karen (Imogen Poots) takes care of the family. No parents are around.
Barbara has trouble at school, where she insults teachers, the principal and other students. She’s bullied and bullies back. New school psychologist Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana) takes a special interest in Barbara and helps her. The new girl in school, Sophia (Sydney Wade), also becomes Barbara’s first real friend, and the one to whom Barbara espouses her giant-hunting lifestyle. The cast is good. Wolfe, in particular, does a good job creating a girl whose violent angst translates into behavior that isn’t completely forgivable but understandable given her situation.
It’s a shame that with such a skilled cast that I Kill Giants falls so, so flat. It may simply be the low budget that prevented director Anders Walter to really go all-out with the fantasy elements, but without them the movie is far too straightforward. We know roughly what the giants represent (although the nature of where “giants” and “Covaleski” came from specifically is played as a reveal) from the start, and, well, nothing really changes. Barbara’s battles with the giants are mostly off-screen, a threat she keeps talking about that makes other characters nervous. I’m not saying this movie needed more fight sequences, but it needed more something.
Without a unique reason for Barbara’s world, there just isn’t much to I Kill Giants. Losing a parent or loved one is without a doubt one of the most traumatic experiences a person can go through, and stories that create empathetic characters and circumstances to capture those moments in life are important; acommon as they are, they’re common for a reason.
Reducing that pain to a plot point can come across as skeevy, and using it as a pretense for big action spectacle would, too, but there’s something missing here. I felt awful for Barbra’s situation from the outset because I knew what she was going through in her real life — and I never really cared about what was going on in her secret life.
Perhaps it comes with the relative fullness of her supporting cast. Barbara has a true friend in the form of Sophia and a real champion without question as soon as she meets Mrs. Mollé. Her sister wants to have a good relationship with her, and actual, real-life mean-girl bullies physically attack her. The fantasy world that represents her internal life should be at least as interesting or engaging as those relationships and it is not. It comes up short. The fantasy must work as a metaphor. It needs to express something that she cannot in her actual real-world interactions. Fantasy needs to put into stark relief what her world feels like to her. Here, it’s redundant.
There are simply other, more impactful takes on this same story out there. I Kill Giants is well-acted and -directed but ultimately too short on the imagination to make it distinctive. It’s a little hollow, straightforward, unimaginative. It isn’t deep enough to be manipulative but offers nothing beyond the basic sympathy that comes with watching a child deal with the tragedies of life for the first time. I wish there had been more to it.
I Kill Giants is available on VOD in the United States. This reviewer rented a copy on iTunes for $7 – the cost of a movie ticket.