In UK Cinemas 6th April 2018
Those looking for something a little different from the usual comic book movie fare look no further. This adaptation of Joe Kelly’s 2008 coming of age drama might still contain the kinds of magic spells, giant hammers and monolithic creatures you’re expecting, but make no mistake this is a far more grounded and melancholy tale. It does still boast a few intricate visual effects moments, however despite the mentions of Harry Potter producers as an advertising hook this isn’t another family friendly romp. While the movie does contain both fantasy spectacle sequences and a positive message for younger viewers, this is a harsh real life drama first and a monster slaying escapist fantasy second.
Our protagonist Barbara (Madison Wolfe) has a lot of problems at home and at school. Beyond her interest in table top games and folk lore being disrupted by her brother playing guns blazing video games, things at home are tough because of strained relationships and absent parents. Her older sister Karen (Imogen Poots) tries to hold things together, despite financial issues at work and problems in the kitchen as the two youngsters complain about her cooking but refuse to help out. Barbara instead choose to escape from her problems into a world of dark omens and mystic runes, roaming the woods with home made concoctions to lure the eponymous creatures she obsesses over.
While there is some sense that this could all be a game there’s generally a feeling that she really believes in a lot of this stuff. However despite the hints that this will become either a story about real giants or a plot about mental illness (the latter being a troubling notion that I couldn’t shake) there’s more going on than meets the eye. At school Barbara has more issues with both bullies and authority figures, although she takes no nonsense from either and does things her way whether it helps or not. Mrs Mollé (Zoe Saldana) is the latest councillor trying to assess Barbara’s ongoing troubles at home and in the classroom. New student Sophia (Sydney Wade) also tries to befriend Barbara, since she’s just moved from England and feels like an outcast in her own way.
The whole small girl big issues plot has been done before, and the idea of running from problems using the power of imagination could also come across as a little stale. However the mixture of folklore and fantasy intertwines with the bleaker elements of the story in a way that overcomes this and manages to be both intimate and unsettling. Danish film maker Anders Walter has a good grasp on this kind of thing having made a couple of short films in the past dealing with similar issues. The performances are all solid, but the standout is Wolfe who portrays the abrasive Barbara as both a self centred brat and troubled misfit.
The tone is never twee despite the bunny ears and primary coloured rain coats, and often there’s a visual sense of a coming storm as skies become grey and shadows loom. Whether it’s used for symbolism or to frame hulking CGI creatures, the style is always appropriate. The coastal setting is detached and cold even before the third act deluge, and the misty woodlands and muted beaches emphasise the material. In contrast to this the glimpses of mythology and the candlelit hideaways Barbara retreats into offer moments of warmth and security, hinting at the things from her life that have been taken away.
Not everything is so well rounded and Barbara’s brother is notably missing as a character, particularly as the reality of their problems at home is uncovered. Sophia also feels underutilised despite having some of the best moments, and it also features a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Noel Clarke as Mr Mollé. There are probably deleted scenes that might have helped here. Barbara herself is problematic for a few reasons, as she gets revenge on her bullies in pretty nasty ways are glossed over. Some of her other behaviour should really be a bigger issue considering her age group. There are times at which the messages become a bit mixed and the lengths Barbara has gone to in her escapism are a bit too much. Some of the fantasy scenes feel as if they were included for the audiences benefit rather than to strengthen the story.
Ultimately the final gut punch and the overall theme is strong enough to carry it towards the conclusion. Those who are expecting this to be an action centric tale about cute outfits, giant magic weapons and friends learning to work together, be warned — this isn’t a fun adventure. It was probably impossible to sell it any other way of course, but there will be moments of incongruity between the trailers and the final product. The studio needs that YA crowd whether they’ll enjoy it or not I suppose. Younger children may also have questions after the credits roll. This isn’t Thor or Adventure Time I’m afraid. However for those looking for a good dramatic story with just enough otherworldly charm a lot more humanity than you’d expect, go seek it out.