Mild Spoilers Ahead (For Concerned Parents)
The Kid Who Would Be King is probably not the sophomore feature fans were expecting from Attack The Block’s Joe Cornish. Which isn’t to say that the two films don’t share some common DNA. Squint and you’ll recognize the unlikely alliances forged in the face of a common, otherworldly threat. But this time around fantasy replaces science fiction, and the core teens are replaced with plucky pre-teens, and the audience… well, this is very much a Kid’s Movie. And that’s OK! It’s not a pejorative, it’s a complement. What Cornish has created is impressive for exactly what it is, which is the sort of pure 80s throwback I didn’t realize I was missing. This isn’t some Pixar-ish all-ages/all-levels adventure, with knowing jokes that wink at the parents while their kids decide which brightly colored character they want on their next backpack. It’s a film with something to say — a LOT to say — and it’s all for young ears. It knows adults are watching, and it almost actively dismisses them despite being intimately familiar to them, like a lost relic from their own childhoods. And that’s the real spell that The Kid Who Would Be King conjures: even though it is not ultimately for parents, they’ll still walk away delighted that they got to share the experience of it with their own kids, because they can remember just how much movies like this matter when you’re young. Movies that treat kids like fully-formed people, with their own demons and dreams — and then let them save the world.
Which is probably why I’m willing to indulge some of the film’s preachier instincts, because it’s just so damn kind-hearted. As you can probably tell, this is a modern spin on Arthurian lore — albeit one that is less focused on the specifics of the legend than the rules of chivalry. The film opens with an animated recap of King Arthur’s adventures: a kingdom divided in chaos, a boy who pulls a sword from a stone to become the chosen heir that unites the land, and a sorceress named Morgana who wants that sword and power for herself. Morgana was defeated by Arthur and his knights (and Merlin!), but she threatened to return when the world was once again in chaos…
And I mean, have you read the news? Sure, the film doesn’t come right out and say “Brexit” or “Trump” or anything, but let’s face it — if an ancient power-hungry witch was going to try and take over the world, now’s the time. But not everything’s completely awful! To whit: A twelve-year-old boy named Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy) steps in to defend his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) from the school bullies, Lance and Kaye (Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris), landing all three of them in detention for fighting. Afterward, Lance and Kaye try to chase him down to exact their revenge, but Alex ducks into a construction site… where he discovers a sword stuck in a sword. Which, duh, he pulls. Because if you see a sword in a stone, you gotta at least try. The good news is, Alex gets the sword out because he’s definitely the Once and Future King, and it is definitely Excalibur — but the bad news is that this act unleashes all kinds of weirdness on his sleepy corner of London. First up is Merlin, who sometimes appears as an owl, sometimes as a cheekily eccentric kid in a Led Zeppelin tee (Angus Imrie), and sometimes as Patrick Stewart — and it’s to the credit of Imrie (and that CGI owl) that you’re not itching for Stewart to reappear the whole time. I thought the gimmick would wear on me, but it worked!
Merlin warns that Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will rise during the upcoming solar eclipse, which is four days away — and until then, she’ll be sending her army of undead knights after Alex every night to try and steal the sword. Oh, and by the way? Merlin is powerless at night, so Alex is kind of on his own. When her minions rise, time stands still and all humans disappear — except for those who have been knighted by the King. So Alex needs to start assembling some knights! And if you didn’t already notice, he’s got three likely candidates in the wings already: Bedders (Bedivere), Kaye (Kay) and Lance (Lancelot). Bedders is delighted by the promise of real magic in the world and eager to join the cause, but King Arthur united his enemies around the Round Table, and Alex decides he needs to find a way to get his bullies to join his fight too. But despite their names, these three aren’t particularly brave or chivalrous — and none of them know how to fight with a sword.
The film hits a lot of familiar Arthurian touchstones (the Lady of the Lake is a delightful reoccurring plot device, for example) as the kids journey to their big standoff against the forces of evil, but the meat of the story lies in the growth of the four young leads as they realize their own potential and learn to work together. And look, there’s nothing subtle about this film. It has a lot of messages — most of which are explicitly stated my Merlin so they’re impossible to miss — but they’re all good ones. Things like how we shouldn’t let hate divide us, and the importance of forgiveness, and how your worth has nothing to do with your birth or status or money or strength and everything to do with what’s in your heart. The world is stacked against us right now, and it doesn’t make it easy to be a good person, but people can change and so can the world — especially since someday it’ll be the kids calling the shots. And no, not every demon you’re going to face in life is going to be a literal evil sorceress with a plan to enslave mankind, but even the ordinary battles in life call for us to be strong and true. You don’t need to be special to be a king, and you don’t need to be a king to be a hero. You just have to do what’s right. You just have to persevere.
That refreshing idealism is the beating heart of the film. And maybe that will be a little too saccharine for some people, though I think there’s just enough of Block’s scruffiness around the edges to keep King from being too smooth. What may be a larger issue is that all that heart tends to mask some of the film’s other weaknesses. Ferguson’s Morgana is mostly underused, and there’s never much tension in any of the battles — though that may prove to be a benefit to sensitive younger viewers who might be more easily scared. It’s weird to say that the flaming undead army isn’t that bad, but it’s true. They look intimidating at first, but they fall apart easily. The movie isn’t trying to scare anyone, and despite all the swords there’s very little violence and no injuries or blood to speak of. Which is where I should also probably warn you that Alex does basically form his own child army, though again the focus is heavily on teamwork (i.e. working as a team to knock over a bunch of flaming skeletons). If anything, kids might walk away with an interest in LARPing and reading old legends. And really, I can think of worse things for kids to be doing.
Mostly I just don’t want to pick the movie apart, because it brought me so much joy. It’s got breezy, inventive action and real emotional heft. And even if it isn’t one that I’ll be telling all my friends to watch, it’s definitely one I’ll be telling them to take their kids to. Hell, I don’t even have a child and I’m already putting this on Baby Preston’s Prospective Viewing Queue. So what if I’m already giving my theoretical baby homework?
Header Image Source: 20th Century Fox