Film review | I Kill Giants

A welcome respite from superheroes though it may be, this young-adult comic book adaptation swerves tonally far from its inspired source material to land in sub-Harry Potter territory

Take shelter: Madison Wolfe is troubled – and troublesome – teenager Barbara Thorson
Take shelter: Madison Wolfe is troubled – and troublesome – teenager Barbara Thorson

The dominance of American pop culture and other Anglophone sources has got it into most of our heads that superheroes are all there is to comics. But swerve just a little bit away from that diffusive hegemonic grip, and you’ll find a rich and varied culture of storytelling that embraces any number of genres and styles. From our neighbouring Italy with the likes of Dylan Dog and Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese, down to Belgium’s Tin Tin and France’s groundbreaking creators like Moebius and Goscinny-Uderzo (of Asterix fame), the culture of the comic book reveals itself more than capable of adapting to any storytelling medium with relative ease.

Which shouldn’t be all that hard to believe, as few things are simpler to imagine than the medium’s direct juxtaposition of word and image.

But painting the American comics scene as being characterised solely by the superhero genre would also be a woeful – even slanderous – mischaracterisation. From the award-winning confessional world of Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and the controversial, confronting work of Robert Crumb to the queasy urbanity of Daniel Clowes (Ghost World), the independents have also had their day. And sometimes even creators, otherwise firmly embedded in the superhero morass, get a chance to offer up something more personal.

That was certainly the case with Joe Kelly, veteran of titles like X-Men and Deadpool, but who got a chance to tell a more intimate coming-of-age fable with the much-loved I Kill Giants, illustrated with inspired flair by Kim Niimura and published in seven-issue instalments by Image Comics across 2008 and 2009.

Enjoying a privilege accorded to few others, Kelly now got a chance to adapt his original comic into a feature-length film, produced by none other than Chris Columbus – director of the first two Home Alone and Harry Potter films, and an early fan of the comic – and directed by Danish filmmaker Anders Winter, in what is his feature-film debut.

But while the script unsurprisingly cleaves close to the source material, it’s Niimura’s idiosyncratic touch that
really feels missing, as the visual transfer to kid-friendly cinema blunts the comic of its ragged edge.

While their older sister, Karen (Imogen Poots) is charged with taking care of them following an unnamed family setback, teenager Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) and her brother find their own ways to cope. While her brother tucks his head into violent video games, Barbara indulges in table-top roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, all the while doing her best to dodge school bullies – led by Taylor (Rory Jackson) – with her caustic brand of wit... a coping mechanism that often lands her in hot water with the high school’s teachers.

It’s an attitude that just about begins to thaw once the compassionate school psychologist Mrs Mollé (Zoe Saldana) begins to chip away at Barbara’s mental walls.

But as it turns out, there’s a lot more to Barbara than just garden variety teenage angst. The girl claims that she can see and foretell the coming of giants. Confiding as much to her new best friend Sophia (Sydney Wade), Barbara begins to prepare herself for the worst... though the real threat might just be closer to home.

Kelly and Niimura’s comic was simple but effective, with Niimura’s art in particular lending a scratchy, lo-fi feel to a story that would otherwise have run the risk of coming across as rote. And the shift in visual modes means that a similarly distinctive hand would have been required but sadly, it’s not in evidence here. Working on what is a debut feature, Winters struggles to provide anything visually striking to the brew, and it feels as if the project just fell back on Chris Columbus’ own tendencies towards the cutesy, heart-warming tropes of plucky young protagonists overcoming adversity.

Still, while it’s not a patch on the source material and contributes very little that’s new, I Kill Giants still packs an emotional jump if you go along for the ride.

The verdict

A cinematic cautionary tale against both letting the source material’s writer adapt his own work, as well as in being careful as to how to calibrate the same adaptation, I Kill Giants has potential and heart to spare, but the resulting effort is something of an energy-sapped muddle. That said, it makes for a fine evening out with the kids and young adults, with an strong core message about dealing with grief surviving roughly intact in the transition from panel to screen. Still, the best thing to come out of it all would be if it results in more people checking out Joe Kelly and Kim Niimura’s comic book mini-series – which is truly wonderful.

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