I Kill Giants is an enchanting, heart-rending movie that adds to the legacy of magical realism and will fill your heart to bursting for its heroine. A middle school girl focused on the larger than life world of her imagination, Barbara takes on bullies at school and once the bell rings, ancient evil in the form of giants.
Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) is the lifeblood of this magical film adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Ken Niimura and Joe Kelly, the later of whom also writes the screenplay. As her sister (Imogen Poots) struggles to keep her head above water caring for Barbara and their brother in a house seemingly without parents, Barbara goes on her usual rounds to protect the town from evil giants makes a new friend, Sophia (Syndey Wade). Sophia has recently moved from Leeds, England to this beautiful coastal town, and instantly takes to Barbara, though our heroine is so used to being mocked by her peers that she’s slow to warm to new faces.
The other new person in her life is the school psychologist, played with warmth and palpable frustration by Zoe Saldana. Mrs. Mollé knows there’s something more to Barbara’s magical world, and will do anything to reach what she sees as a troubled, isolated young student. As the impending giant attack draws closer, everything in Barbara’s world comes to a head, forcing her to be braver than she ever thought possible.
Madison Wolfe carries this film beautifully, taking the lion’s share of the screen time as the inscrutable beating heart at the center of this modern fable. Like any good fairy tale, much of it happens in the woods, there are magical creatures, and darkness lurks behind every corner. Barbara is the kind of girl who spends so much time outside that she has dirt encrusted in her cuticles that no amount of scrubbing can clean, the kind of girl who unironically wears tattered bunny ears for the length of the film.
Barbara calls to mind a common childhood love of mixing magic potions, creating secret lairs, and vivid (not so?) imaginary worlds. Anyone who has made their own lean-to in their backyard or mixed glitter and shampoo into the kind of tincture that garners lectures from grown-ups will find themselves transported back to a younger age as Barbara brings us into her solitary world.
Barbara isn’t east to get to know. By her own admission, she is a little mean to people who she thinks are dumb, which is just about everyone. She isn’t easy to spend time with, so most people, like her brother and classmates, don’t bother. Aside from dressing funny and loving Dungeons & Dragons, from the perspective of everyone around her, Barbara seems to have two feet still firmly planted in the weird, immature, imaginative world of childhood. I would love to see a conversation between Barbara and le Petit Prince, perhaps about the Grandes Personnes he so reviles.
The increasingly dangerous realities of Barbara’s world are shown in sharp relief, particularly in the reactions of those who love her most. Her sister is just barely holding everything together, which Poots manages to play without turning the character into either a nag or a martyr. She knows something is off with Barbara, but there’s never enough time in the day to break through Barbara’s hardened exterior.
So much is unspoken in I Kill Giants, and the burden of conveying it falls largely on Saldana and the two young leads. All three excel here, drawing the audience in to not only want to solve this puzzle box of a film, but to feel Barbara’s anguish and theirs so profoundly. Sophia is eager to throw herself into Barbara’s world, yet she’s brave enough to tell her new friend when this world scares her. Sophia’s skepticism threatens to come between them; Barbara wants Sophia to be brave, but Sophia wants Barbara to be alright.
Barbara’s duty as protector is enormous, and she dedicates herself wholly to it – perhaps too much. She does daily “rounds,” checking up on the hidden runes she has painted onto abandoned trains and scratched into corners, the charms and magical trip wires tucked just out of site. She constructs physical tests and tracks conditions in her logbook, all almost as elaborate as the world they support.
It’s the idea of “just out of sight” that I Kill Giants plays with most effectively. So many of our genre heroes have to keep their heroics a secret, making themselves look foolish or even selfish. But what does that look like while you’re still waiting to be vindicated? If, unlike Buffy, your classmates haven’t figured out that you protect your dump of a town once a month? What does it mean to be brave, and which monsters are the hardest to vanquish?
The only truly unbelievable part of this film is the idea that it’s set in New Jersey. Beautiful shots of the Irish coast and the Belgian countryside add to the rich visual landscape of Barbara’s town. This helps anchor the giants, past and present, believably in our world. I Kill Giants perfectly captures the concept of magical realism: it simultaneously buys into the world of the enchanted while being completely grounded in reality. The beautiful animation and effects make this brand of magical realism easy to relax into, even as the audience searches for what’s going on in Barbara’s life, and whether the giants she sees are real after all.
To preserve the mystery I won’t say much about the ending, other than that it’s impossible not to be moved. I Kill Giants shows us that though villains come in many forms, there are heroes who walk among us every day.