An earnest adventure with something to say
Honestly one of my favorite movies of all time, writer/director Joe Cornish cemented eternal status with his “teens from the projects versus space aliens” comedy sci-fi action adventure film Attack The Block. While I’ve enjoyed his writing on such projects as The Adventures Of Tin Tin and Ant-Man, I’ve been chomping at the bit for him to return to the writer/director seat for another feature film all his own. Yet when the trailer hit for The Kid Who Would Be King… I was nervous. It simply looked like a movie that offered me nothing I wanted to see beyond Joe Cornish’s name in the credits. Fortunately, this was a case of a trailer doing a poor job of representing the final product. And I do so hope the film will not suffer at the box office as a result of the misguided marketing.
Because The Kid Who Would Be King is awesome. It’s EXACTLY the kind of follow up I would have hoped for from Cornish and highlights all of his strengths as a storyteller. That isn’t to say that the film is perfect. It veers into “this isn’t working” territory several times, only to be rescued by Cornish’s deft pen. It’s in the execution and the ideals that The Kid Who Would Be King soars.
This is a modern, kid-centric retelling of the King Arthur legend with its own unique spin on the ideals of that archetypal narrative. And it’s frankly inspiring, if clearly Spielbergian in its origin. From the opening frames, a cool-as-hell animated sequence re-framing the Arthurian legend into Cornish’s own unique brand sets the perfect tone. Then we meet our quartet of main characters pretty economically. Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy) comes across his portly best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) being bullied by Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris) and immediately stands up for Bedders against the bigger, badder bullies. It’s the kind of underdog sequence that takes us universally back to middle school and taps into what we all love about stories of heroes defending the defenseless. Soon Lance and Kaye are chasing Alex down and cornering him at a construction site. After he takes a nasty spill, they run off and he encounters the legendary Excalibur, lodged in construction rubble. Soon a fairly complicated mythology (set up in the initial animation) begins to unfold with an updated take on Merlin, the evil Morgana, and the rise of her dark army in conjunction with an eclipse merely days away. Alex must forge alliances with his bullies and greatest foes, receive training from a very unique incarnation of Merlin (at times appearing as a hilariously out of touch teenager [Angus Imrie], at times as his adult form [Patrick Stewart], and at times as an owl), and even must eventually confront his own past and raise up an army to defeat Morgana. A tall order for a 12 year old with unresolved issues with his single mother and absent father.
The Kid Who Would Be King clocks in at two and a quarter hours and while it definitely could have been tightened up and possibly chopped all the way down to two hours even, there’s plenty of meat on the old bones of the Arthurian legend that Cornish wants to play with, and he gives real arcs to his characters, thereby making the fanciful and silly premise of a fantasy battle taking place in the halls of a modern British middle school palatable and fun. It takes a lot of maneuvering to get the audience to buy in, however, and some of the many ingredients required to go along with this grand narrative never quite gel. Regardless, Cornish does a lot with this unwieldy film.
For one thing, this is probably the first King Arthur film that is also about Brexit. “A land is only as good as its leaders” both Merlin and Cornish remind us. Central to Cornish’s narrative here is that Morgana is rising once again because she has been lying dormant, waiting for a time when division is rife and the world is turning against itself and rudderless without the identity of Arthur’s virtuous leadership to guide us forward. It’s very clearly an admission that the adults running the show today, whether in Britain with the Brexit debacle or over here in America with the most disastrous political climate in recent memory, have lost their way. Our new once and future king, Alex, must rise up and lead because his elders have abdicated their responsibility. It’s a condemnation of our current global political leadership, and a fresh and optimistic exercise in trust that our younger generations can prevail where we floundering adults have failed.
Most interestingly, Alex spends time on a quest to discover his own roots, believing that Excalibur has somehow chosen him because his long absent father must have been descended from Arthur himself. Citing Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, Alex believes assuming the mantle of King Arthur must somehow be his destiny by birthright. This plot mechanism is a classical heroic trope, but one that has been coming under much scrutiny in recent years as aloof storytelling that rises up some kind of elite/elect hero and leaves out those of us who would likely never be a “chosen one” of royal lineage or the like. This shift in our heroes was very well documented in the non-traditional philosophy of the Matrix series, and has most recently been fascinatingly explored with Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Much of fandom still wants our heroes to be mythical, destined, blood-born heroes, it seems. But Alex, like Rey in The Last Jedi, must soon confront the reality that it isn’t his birthright or destiny to be a hero, so much as it is simply something that is being asked of him. Alex becomes a hero through his actions of selflessness, heroism, teamwork, and peacemaking among his enemies. Through his journey, and through Merlin’s tutelage, Alex embraces the high ideals of the Arthurian code, and becomes The Kid Who Would Be King by living out the high ideals of that code through his actions. Yes, the sword still chose Alex, but not because of his birthright so much as his potential for goodness.
That’s all pretty heady stuff, however, and The Kid Who Would Be King also has a lot of fun with itself. Merlin is often quite funny, and the wraith-like demon soldiers of Morgana look pretty awesome as they chase down our heroes in ever-strengthening attacks that provide fun action set pieces that prepare our heroes for the final climactic battle. There’s plenty of comedy that will likely land better with young people than it did with me. In the end, the Home Alone-like siege on the students’ school, complete with a small army of kids trained to do magical battle against Rebecca Ferguson’s Morgana and her hordes, feels creative and enjoyable without ever seeming so grand in scale as to resemble a Marvel film.
Cornish is an incredible director of children, and writer of young characters. Attack The Block’s Moses is one of the most relevant and vital young heroes of modern cinema, and Cornish does another great job here developing Alex through trials and adventures into a highly compelling young leader. Behind the scenes, he is able to coax very down to earth and relatable performances out of his principle cast. I hope Joe Cornish keeps telling tales of heroism through the lens of youth as long as he has this incredible grasp on this material.
The Kid Who Would Be King is fun, inspiring in its messaging and idealism, and optimistic in young people’s abilities to right the wrongs handed down to them. It’s a rip roaring adventure that also manages to take our current leadership to task and asks us to tear down the myths of destiny and instead lift up the ideals of compassion, truth, and reconciliation to carry us forward to our only hope of any kind of Camelot.
And I’m Out.