Joe Cornish’s first movie since Attack the Block is actually great. A modernized version of the King Arthur legend, The Kid Who Would Be King is an exciting and intelligent retelling that is both enjoyable for parents and will be remembered fondly by kids in the future the same way some of us remember Matilda or The Neverending Story.
Louis Ashbourne Serkis plays Alex, who is having trouble at school with a pair of bullies and clashes with the schoolteachers who’d sooner punish him than them. Eventually their bullying leads Alex into recklessness, and one confrontation at a building site ends with him landing onto a mound of dirt. He turns around and sees a random sword in a stone, and of course, takes it. That sword summons a not-at-all conspicuous older teenager who watches Alex from about four feet away at all times. His name is Merten (you’d think he’d be more creative because he’s actually a rather famous wizard). It also is seemingly a harbinger of the evil enchantress Morgan le Fey and her army of monsters. A cross-UK adventure ensues, with unexpected allies and twists along the way. It’s just a little over-long.
One thing I’ve always liked about movies aimed at children is that they often are more convincing in fantasy than some of the blockbusters aimed at adults. That may have something to do with the fascination and sponge-learning found in the child point of view, plus the openness that filmmakers bring alongside the ideas. If it actually feels like magic to the cast, they’ll bring their best. When Alex takes his sword home and is attacked for the first time by bone-monsters, we get our first taste of the urgency of his new situation, and the realization that the sword may well be special.
Talented young actors fill this cast: Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, and Angus Imrie all get their moments to shine, even if they may be brief. You may recall Cornish’s alien invasion film Attack the Block introduced the world to John Boyega, who now is one of the leads of the Star Wars franchise. Chaumoo in particular delivers both a comic performance and one of pity as Bedders, a particular target of bullies who may not get the sword, but he is the first to get the shield. The film also has Patrick Stewart in a small role; thankfully he is supplemental, as in he is not the focus, and doesn’t take away from the work the young actors do.
Though the film is not without its negatives: it pushes into two hours in a way that feels unnecessary. Near 90 minutes it comes to what feels like a natural conclusion, but it needs the big battle scene, too. It’s almost like they were obligated to include it, and reluctantly did even as it almost runs out of steam.
The film also delivers messages of hope for those who may need it, including children with absent parents, bullies and the bullied, and never talks down to the audience. One character notes that the characters King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter all have something in common: absent fathers. Alex’s understanding of both his family heritage and himself develop quickly once some of that mystery is cleared. It’s also said, “The sword doesn’t choose by birth and blood.” He and all of the knights all have these moments where they realize they must grow up. It’s a treat to watch the kids lead the way, from start to finish, in both tragedy and comedy. We can see glimmers of hope for the future in their eyes, and through films, re-emphasize the importance of reinvention of the classics to new generations.