The Kid Who Would Be King is a family-friendly adventure tale that, as the title suggests, puts a new spin onto the familiar legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. This is the latest film from noteworthy screenwriter Joe Cornish, who directed the 2011 cult favorite Attack The Block. Best friends Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis; son of Andy) and Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) have now graduated from primary school to secondary (akin to middle school for those in the United States). Their lowest rung on the ladder status is cemented by the constant bullying the friends receive from Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), two elder schoolmates. A minor scuffle lands Alex, Lance, and Kaye into after-school detention.
Heading home after detention, the bullies want to pick another fight. They chase Alex into a construction site where he falls unconscious. They leave, fearing the worst, but Alex just had the wind knocked out of him. It is here that he discovers a sword in a stone. Alex puls it out and awakens Merlin (Angus Imrie), who disguises himself as an everyday teenager to keep an eye on the young lad. Removing the sword also alerts the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) to Alex’s presence.
Now, Alex must forge allies and knight them, find the hidden entrance to the underworld where Morgana is trapped, survive attacks from her undead minions, raise an army, and do all this before the next eclipse; which is in four days.
From start to finish The Kid Who Would Be King proves itself a rip-roaring, adventure that is sure to enthrall its target audience. Regarding tone and atmosphere, it most closely resembles the direct-to-video fare that continuously lined the shelves of brick and mortar video rental stores. I am talking about titles such as Dragonworld and The Excalibur Kid. There’s a goofy, exuberant charm that the movie revels in, clearly awe-struck that it is even allowed to exist. This works extraordinarily in the movie’s favor, as that sense of jubilant fun leaps off the screen, sucking the viewer into its world. A horse chase through the forests of Tintagel is thrilling, with a true sense of danger and hijinks such as Bedders falling off his pony working in tandem to prop each other up.
“…Alex must forge allies and knight them, find the hidden entrance to the underworld Morgana is trapped in, survive attacks from her undead minions, raise an army, and do all this before the next eclipse; which is in four days.”
Merlin’s powers stem from the day, whereas Morgana’s is derived from the night. Thus, all the attacks from the undead only happen after school, which is a good workaround for an obvious question. The most ingenious aspect comes in the form of who can and cannot see the fallen, skeletal warriors- only ‘the king’ that pulled Excalibur and whomever he knights can see the ghoulish spectators; anyone else disappears for the duration of the attack (either sunrise or until each summoned demon is vanquished). This gets around a lot of problematic aspects of the big-budget superhero movies, such as collateral damage and injured civilians; all the while delivering on the promise of the setup.
While the screenplay, by Cornish, offers few surprises, it crafts realistic characters and leaves room for drama, action, and comedy in equal measure. An hour or so in, the truth about Alex’s dad is revealed and that moment, and its aftermath, are authentically handled; any kids watching will probably be a bit choked up upon seeing its resolution. However, some scenes don’t ring as realistic as others. Lance and Kaye leave Alex and Bedders in the middle of their journey to Tintagel, but it’s resolved just a few moments later. Such a speedy reuniting makes that whole section unnecessary.
It is also worth mentioning that there is a female in the group and no love story whatsoever. No jealousy between would be friends, first kisses, or any other such traditional coming of age tropes are trotted out. Kaye is a member of contributing, knighted member of the group, and treated with as much respect and seriousness as all the other characters. It is gloriously refreshing and quite a lovely change of pace (Wikipedia lists Lance and Kaye as dating, but there is nothing in the movie to suggest such). That strong writing extends to the relationship between Alex and his mom, Mary (Denise Gough).
After the fight that got him detention, Mary is asking why Alex jumped onto Lance’s back and flung him to the ground. Alex explains that the older student was picking on Bedders and his mom is surprised by this. See, Alex did not tell the headmaster (at least that is whom I am presuming her to be) the real reason, explaining that it would only make things worse for him and his friend. This flummoxes Mary, but anyone who was ever bullied in school can easily relate to Alex’s reasoning.
Visually, The Kid Who Would Be King, is mostly, very gorgeous. Morgana’s introduction trapped in roots is dark, a bit gruesome, and wholly unique to look at. The trees’ roots bind her but the closer to the eclipse the movie gets, the less restricted she becomes. Certain scenes with her had my brain screaming Legend; in the best ways.
“…a goofy, exuberant charm that the movie revels in, clearly awe-struck that it is even allowed to exist.”
The special effects and computer-generated imagery are outstanding as well. The undead army has weight and heft to them, making them a genuine threat. There are a few extreme close-ups of the main characters that have very noticeable and poorly rendered green screen. Aside from those brief shots (which stand out because they are the only ones that bad), the film’s effects and design work is exceptional.
The young Serkis is terrific as Alex. He sells the action and drama well, and he shares excellent chemistry with everyone in the cast. As the best friend Dean Chaumoo is a lot of fun and his conviction that this is a legend come to life is believable. Patrick Stewart has a small role as an older Merlin, and he puts his typically underutilized comedic timing to excellent use, as well as flexing his notable dramatic chops later in the film.
Taylor and Dorris as the bullies turned allies feel truly angry at the beginning. Seeing that facade go away as they are called for a more noble purpose which reinvigorates them is a lot of fun. Ferguson as Morgana is truly creepy, crafting a memorable, threatening villain who might scare a few of the younger children in the audience. However, it is Angus Imrie who emerges as a real star on the rise. As the teenage Merlin, Imrie plays the put upon with everything about modern life to great effect, and goes broad on the comedy, getting the biggest laughs in the film from nothing more than a wave of his arms or a crazed look in his eyes. I suspect Imrie will breakthrough any time now, and I can’t wait.
I was not looking forward to The Kid Who Would Be King, as the trailers and marketing campaign for the film were underwhelming. But, despite a few scenes not working from a character vantage point and some dodgy effects every once in a while, Joe Cornish has pulled off a fantastic feat- a children’s fantasy adventure that balances the drama, action, and humor perfectly and will keep an audience of any age entertained through its entire runtime.
The Kid Who Would Be King (2019) Directed by Joe Cornish. Written by Joe Cornish. Starring Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Angus Imrie, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Rebecca Ferguson, Denise Gough, Patrick Stewart.
8 out of 10 Swords