The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)
It is straight-up depressing that The Kid Who Would Be King took a bath at the box office. You have to wonder if that would have been the case before the rise of the Disney-Marvel axis; it seems like it wasn’t too long ago that there would have been space for something like this at the table. It’s not a kid-lit adaptation, but it feels adjacent to the stream of contenders we got in the post-Hogwarts world and is certainly a cut above the vast majority of them. Plus, it’s written and directed by Joe Cornish, who gave us Attack the Block (2011) and, as you are doubtlessly already aware, Attack the Block is bloody brilliant.
So too is The Kid Who Would Be King but try telling audiences that — it was slaughtered like the Saxons at the Battle of Badon Hill, losing studio 20th Century Fix around $US50m. A damn shame, considering it’s one of the most winningly charming kids’ flicks to come along since the mid-’80s. Praise Merlin for streaming media, huh?
The kid of the title is 12-year-old Alex (Louis Serkis, son of Andy), who already has his hands full fitting in at a new school and contending with bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris, and yes, the Arthurian names are a little on the nose, come to mention it) when he chances across an old sword in a building site. Pulling the weapon from the stone it’s embedded in — because what else would you do, right? — marks our hero as the heir to King Arthur because the sword, of course, is Excalibur.
Finding out you’re the mystically-anointed true-born king of England is pretty heady stuff to deal with, even with a revived Merlin (Patrick Stewart in old man form, Angus Imrie in his sassy de-aged body) showing up to advise him and best mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) who’s effectively playing Sam to Alex’s Frodo. He needs to get up to speed quickly, though, as evil witch Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) is back in business and plans to take over the world with an army of undead knights. A solar eclipse in four days is our handy ticking clock deadline, and we’re off and running.
The Kid Who Would Be King is an absolute banger of a children’s film, offering up a savvy mix of Arthurian myth, spectacle, action, and comedy, all wrapped in a wide-eyed ‘gosh-whiz!’ tone that somehow manages never to become grating. It looks deceptively simple but constructing this kind of thing, it’s no easy trick. The key is that writer and director Joe Cornish never approaches the material cynically; while the film is often sentimental, and canny audience members will recognize exactly when and how their heartstrings are being pulled, and their emotional levers are being pressed, it’s all done so earnestly that it’s impossible to resent.
While there are plenty of special effects and action on display — and some of those effects, like Morgana’s zombie-knight henchmen, might be a bit much for the very young — it’s the cast that really carries the day. Angus Imrie’s queer-coded, foppish teen Merlin is a standout, but the film belongs to Serkis the Younger, who is so effortlessly likable in the lead role that you can just about believe in the divine right nonsense the whole film is predicated on. Cornish smartly parallels the core King Arthur myth with the contemporary elements of Alex’s life: he’s an amiable everykid from a single-parent family who finds himself thrust into a position of leadership and responsibility and converts his enemies into allies by simply appealing to and believing in their better natures. Lance and Kaye, along with Bedders (based on Sir Bedevere, of course) become the core members of Alex’s modern Round Table, and by the time the rousing climax arrives the whole school is on board, with Alex leading his teen troops against Morgana’s horde in a bloodless but breathtaking battle.
It’s just so much fun, dammit, and while there’s plenty of political allusions and subtext to pick up on if you’re in the mood (Alex’s multicultural knightly order saving Britain from what is effectively a magical ethno-nationalist), the film never beats the viewer over the head with it. If your idea of a good time is ‘The Goonies meets Excalibur,’ you really need to get yourself in front of this one.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson