An old-fashioned streak of adventure runs throughout The Kid Who Would Be King, a riff on the King Arthur legend gussied up for modern times. It’s a decent enough family film, largely dependent on the charm of its young cast, that manages to be slightly disappointing only if you recognize the name of its writer/director. That would be Joe Cornish, whose directorial debut Attack the Block was a blast of fresh air back in 2011. Inexplicably, it’s taken Cornish the better part of a decade to make another film; his sophomore effort The Kid Who Would Be King is fine, even if it would’ve been nice for the film to be a bit more remarkable.
Very quickly, The Kid Who Would Be King establishes itself as taking place in the here and now, as we see and hear newscasts and headlines about our world being rife with division, fear, and poor leadership. No politicians’ names are uttered, and only Britain itself is ever presented as being directly under siege, but…you don’t have to think too hard about other countries and politicians the setting might apply to. With the United Kingdom in such peril, that leaves the sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) an opportunity to regain control over the land after having been banished to the underworld by her half-brother, King Arthur, all those years ago in the Middle Ages. So who can stop Morgana? A quartet of unlikely kids — Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), and their two bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Doris) — who serve the same roles as King Arthur, Sir Bedevere, Sir Lancelot and Sir Kay.
Updating the King Arthur legend for the 21st century is obvious enough, to the point where it’s surprising it hasn’t happened yet. Alex, who first realizes his destiny as the next wielder of Excalibur, is mostly going off a Classics Illustrated-style book that tells the tale of how Arthur became the once and future king of England. After he pulls Excalibur from the stone (helpfully located in a construction site), he encounters a strange teenage version of Merlin (Angus Imrie), who tries to get him to stop Morgana before an upcoming solar eclipse. What works most in the film is the undercurrent of sadness — leaving aside the social commentary, which is hard to dismiss, Alex’s real quest is regarding his missing-in-action father and learning more about his past. That side of the story is at least treated with more heft, and feels vastly less perfunctory and predictable than much of what occurs.
That’s not to say The Kid Who Would Be King is bad; it’s a perfectly reasonable and sometimes quite charming film. Imrie is its highlight, delivering a very off-kilter and physically loopy performance. He’s also responsible for one of the best jokes in the film, as we learn what modern foods are able to take the place of the uniquely disgusting-sounding food he needs for energy. (Patrick Stewart, the other big-name actor here, portrays Merlin when he’s not appearing as a teenager, but still wearing–because why not?–a Led Zeppelin T-shirt.) The four lead kids are all OK; Chaumoo, as the excitable Bedders, is the best of the bunch, though Serkis, in many of his scenes, at least physically calls to mind his famous father, Andy.
The Kid Who Would Be King, though, did desperately need to be shorter, clocking in at just over two hours. The second half of the film has at least two different climactic-seeming battles, which explains its padded length. Though both sequences lean very heavy on CGI to capture Morgana’s troop of flaming undead soldiers, only the sequence that brings Alex and friends back to school has the right kind of energy to fit in the overall story. At the very least, The Kid Who Would Be King could’ve been a tighter, crisper affair by gutting an earlier sequence in Morgana’s lair that seems painfully green-screened.
But it’s hard to argue with a movie whose message is so strongly in favor of the necessity of being a good person, even if the world around you gets tougher and tougher. It’s maybe only a mild compliment to say how relieving it is that The Kid Who Would Be King avoids any lazy, puerile humor to emphasize its juvenile credentials. This movie’s not trying to be lowbrow or dumb or cheesy or rife with fart jokes; in its own way, it’s a Classics Illustrated-filtered version of one of the great myths of English lore. But as charming as it can be, simply knowing that its filmmaker was capable of Attack the Block, which brought a group of teens together to fight off a supernatural evil, means The Kid Who Would Be King feels like it arrived a little too late.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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